The 17th century was a strange time for Christmas. For the first few decades of the century, people celebrated just as they had for hundreds of years, until a political squabble between the king and parliament exploded into a prolonged period of civil war and the rise to power of some distinctly humourless politicians.
The anti-Christmas legislation enacted by the Puritan Long Parliament in the 1640s wasn’t the first time the British government has had a sense of humour failure (and it won’t be the last) – but it was certainly the most spectacular. All the things that made Christmas so enjoyable for ordinary people were banned: mince pies (see below), decorations, gaming, plays, and attending church services. Shops and businesses were expected to stay open on December 25th – it was, in short, to be treated like just another working day:
Resolved by the Parliament: That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas-Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon the day in respect thereof – 1652 Ordinance
This was a very foolish move, as midwinter celebrations of one form or another have been central to human culture and belief systems for thousands of years. However, Puritan religious beliefs trumped the near-universal need for people to have fun and celebrate during the darkest, coldest time of the year.
Christmas was banned simply because the Puritans saw no reference to its celebration in the Bible. And because they objected to the pagan and Catholic elements in the ancient rituals and customs of the season. In modern terms, basically, Christmas was banned because of the religious extremism of powerful extremists.
Quite understandably, this ban on festive fun was not popular with the ordinary people; many of whom continued to celebrate Christmas in secret. This could get you in trouble, particularly in London, where soldiers patrolled the streets over the festive season with orders to confiscate the makings of a Christmas feast from anyone found with such foodstuffs in their possession. Attending a Christmas church service could get you arrested, sometimes even within the church itself, as the diarist John Evelyn found to his cost in 1657:
These wretched miscreants held their muskets against us as we came up to receive the Sacred Elements, as if they would have shot us at the Altar
The government attempted to put a stop to these continued seasonal celebrations and to force shops and businesses to stay open on Christmas Day – but this heavy-handed bullying only upset people further, actually resulting in riots between pro- and anti-Christmas factions in a number of cities and towns, including Norwich, London and Canterbury. An account of such a riot in Canterbury on 22nd December 1652 tells of how:
The Major and his assistants used their best endeavors to qualify this tumult, but the fire being once kindled, was not easily quenched. The Sheriff laying hold of a fellow, was stoutly resisted; which the Major perceiving, took a Cudgel and struck the man; who, being no puny, pulled up his courage, and knocked down the Major, whereby his Cloak was much torn and dirty, beside the hurt he received. The Major thereupon made strict proclamation for keeping the Peace and that every man depart to his own house. The multitude hollowing thereat, in disorderly manner; the Alderman and Constables caught two or three of the rout, and sent them to Jail, but they soon broke loose, and jeered Master Alderman.
Soon after issued forth the Commanders of the Rabble, with an addition of Soldiers, into the high street, and brought with them two Foot-balls, whereby their company increased. Which the Major and Aldermen perceiving, took what prisoners they had got, and would have carried them to the Jail. But the multitude following after to the King’s Bench, were opposed by Captain Bridge, who was straight knocked down, and had his head broke in two places, not being able to withstand the multitude, who, getting betwixt him and the Jail, rescued their fellows, and beat the Major and Aldermen into their houses, and then cried Conquest.
Note the reference to football – perceived to be causing trouble even then!
Christmas lovers everywhere breathed a sigh of relief when the British monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles II and Christmas became legal again – but there were still some who disapproved of all the festive fun, and particularly of the notoriously rowdy seasonal celebrations at the royal court. On Christmas Day 1662, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary how he had heard one such critical viewpoint preached as a sermon in front of the courtiers themselves:
Methought he made but a poor sermon, but long, and reprehending the mistaken jollity of the Court for the true joy that shall and ought to be on these days, he particularized concerning their excess in plays and gaming… Upon which it was worth observing how far [the court] are come from taking the reprehensions of a bishopp seriously, that they all laugh in the chappell
Christmas was back – but not quite in its old garb. Although people did still celebrate the festive period (and although the received image of Restoration Britain is one of non-stop roistering), the seasonal excesses of the medieval and Tudor periods were now a distant memory. In the post-Cromwellian era, Christmas was a far more subdued celebration than it had ever been, and this remained the case until the 19th century, when “the festive season rediscovered its medieval sense of joy”¹.
Seventeenth century mince pies were very different to the sweet, fruity little pastry cases we know today. Made with a meat-based filling, the Stuart mince pie was often made as one large pie to be served as a main course. However, as with this 1624 recipe (which was discovered in the National Archives), they could be made as smaller pies too. Here’s a version of the recipe in modern English:
You will need:
1590 grams of flour
340 grams of sugar
3 egg yolks
338 grams of butter (diced)
112 grams of clarified butter (melted)
300 grams of mutton leg (chopped)
100 grams veal leg mince (substitute another type of mince if you’re not happy using veal)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of salt
225 grams of sugar
323 grams of large raisins
225 grams of currents
1 orange (zest and juice)
1 lemon (zest and juice)
1 nutmeg (grated)
1 teaspoon of cloves (ground)
150 grams of dates (chopped)
1) Mix together the flour, sugar, butter and egg yolks to make a pastry. Put to one side.
2) Mix together the rest of the ingredients to make the mincemeat filling.
3) Preheat your oven to 180°C (fan assisted)/200°C (regular)
4) Flour your surfaces and the rolling pin, then roll out the pastry into circles.
5) Place your pastry circles into pie tins and fill with the mincemeat mixture. Top with dates.
6) Brush the edges of the pastry in the pie tin with egg yolk and place a smaller circle of pastry on top
7) Cook for 15-20 minutes, depending on your oven.
¹ Niall Edworthy – ‘The Curious World Of Christmas’ (London; Doubleday, 2007), p.24