Way back in 2010, I wrote a Christmas post examining how the festive season was celebrated in the 17th century. This was a period of great upheaval in British culture and society, especially in the aftermath of the Civil Wars and the execution of King Charles I. A Puritan government under Oliver Cromwell had taken over from the monarchy and implemented a new set of policies that weren’t always popular with the ordinary people.
Most notoriously, they banned the celebration of Christmas – as I wrote in the previous post, this really annoyed the people of London (and elsewhere), who simply carried on as usual when it came to enjoying the festivities, and even rioted when they could not! In return, London’s refusal to abide by the law thoroughly irritated the government, as this intriguing report from around 1650 (attributed to Cromwell himself) shows.
You can see just how much these 17th century Londoners got up the noses of those in power from the transcript of this report, which was sent to the influential Puritan (and regicide) Sir Henry Mildmay. The original document is now in the National Archives:
Report sent to S[i]r Hen[ry] Mildmay
The Councell haveing received severall Informations that there was avery wilfull &
strict observation of the day com[m]only called Christmasse day throughout the Cittyes of
London & Westm[inster] by agenerall keeping of their shops shut up and that there were
Contemptuous speeches used by some in favour thereof, which the Councell conceiveing to be upon the old grounds of superstition and malignancy and tending to the avowing of
the same and Contempt of the present Lawes and governm[en]t have thought fit that
the Parlam[en]t be moved to take the same into Consideration for such further provisions
and penaltyes for the abolishing & punishing of those old superstitions observations and
meeting w[i]th such malicious contradiction of offenders in that behalfe as their wisedomes shall iudge fit, They have likewise received informations of frequent
resort unto and exerciseing of the idolatrous masse in severall places to the great dishono[u]r of Almightie God, notorious breach of the lawes and scandal of the governm[en]t wherein according to notice given they have already taken some Course and desire the parlam[en]t will be pleased to take that matter alsoe into their Consideration for further remedies & suppression of that Idolatrie in such way as to them shall seeme meet
That it be likewise reported to the Parl[amen]t that the Councell is informed that there are still remaining the Armes and pictures of the late King in severall Churches Halls, upon the Gates and in other publique places of the Citty of London
That the parl[amen]t bee moved to appoint whom they shall thinke fitt to see the same armes & pictures taken downe and defaced and to give an Account of their executing the same w[i]thin such tyme as they shall thinke fit to allow for that purpose
And S[i]r Henry Mildmay is desired to make this report
It’s quite clear from this that London has always done what it wanted, even as far back as the 17th century – and Christmas was what it wanted, despite the implementation of what the people must have seen as silly laws and the presence of nosy killjoys who reported them to the legislators for enjoying themselves. I can’t say I blame these Londoners, the government and society must have been a real no-fun zone under Cromwell.
And Christmas was important to many people at all levels of society, Puritan disapproval or not. Not just from a religious point of view (although this was a time when religion and the church were central to most people’s lives), but from the sheer necessity of light and brightness and celebration at the darkest time of the year. We may have electricity and a 24 hour modern lifestyle to brighten our lives, but we all still need that little glow that the celebration of a midwinter festival – any midwinter festival – provides…
For links to more festive reading, click here!