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.
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.
“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…” – Colonel Thomas Rainsborough at the Putney Debates, London, 1647.
Thomas Rainsborough‘s famous – and then highly radical – call for a form of representative democracy still rings true, even in these days of universal suffrage. At the time of his comments at the Putney Debates, Britain was still reeling from the effects of the first of the complex Civil Wars that were to completely change the way Britain was governed and would eventually create the modern parliamentary system.
In fact, the Debates were called in order to discuss a new constitution – an issue never entirely resolved and that still remains a political hot potato to this day, in that Britain does not have a formally codified written constitution.
Rainsborough himself was a supporter of the Levellers (OK, who started singing One Way at the back there? Not those Levellers, I’m afraid, although the band did take their name and much inspiration from this group of 17th century radicals), and was also an MP and a colonel in the New Model Army (same goes for that band too).