However, in the hundred years between the English Reformation and the Civil War, the religious observance of Christmas had come under increasing attack from those who wanted the English church to distance itself from traditional Medieval feast days - the so-called 'Puritans'. Elizabethan moralist Philip Stubbs had complained that “more mischief is at this time committed than in all the year besides . . . to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm” (Pilmot, 1960). In 1632 the author and lawyer William Prynne argued that if the Muslim “Turks and Infidels” could see how the English celebrated the birth of Christ, they could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was venerated as “a glutton, an epicure, a wine-bibber” (ibid). Dorothy Hazzard, a leading voice among the Bristol baptist congregation, forbade herself both merriment and the religious observation of the nativity: she would open up her late husband's grocery shop on the morning of 25 December and brazenly sit sewing “on the time they called Christmas day” (Hayden, 2004).
The most important thing to remember when discussing the Long Parliament's view of Christmas is that the 17th century Christmas was very different to that which we enjoy today. Christmas Day in Stuart England was not a time for partying, it was a religious observance. In 1612, the royal court observed 25 December as an official day of mourning for Henry, Prince of Wales, who had died the previous month. Samuel Pepys recorded his Christmases during the 1660s in his diary, and his day typically involved a church visit to hear a Christmas sermon followed by a formal dinner at home with few, if any, guests. Traditional Christmas festivities - exchanging presents, playing games, eating traditional foods - were in the 17th century confined to Twelfth Night, the last day of the Christmas season. Pepys described such Twelfth Night celebrations in 1669:
In the evening I did bring out my cake - a noble cake - and there cut it into pieces, with wine and good drink . . . did out so many titles into a hat, and so drew lots; I was the Queene; and Tho. Turner, King; Creed, Sir Martin Marr-all; and Betty, Mrs Millicent; and so we were mighty merry till it was night.
The shift of this kind merry-making from Twelfth Night to Christmas Day was done by the Victorians, and the Christmas that we celebrate today is largely a Victorian invention. So Parliament's decision in 1644 to forgo the reading of the Christmas Day sermon in churches, in favour of the observation of the fast, was perhaps not as joyless as we might presume. In fact, the decision to discourage Christmas celebrations was not religious but political, and the reasons why lay north of the border.
. . . revise the doctrine, liturgy, and government of the English church . . . showed the Presbyterian authorities in Edinburgh that Westminster was serious about church reform, and served as an inducement for the Scots to send an army southward to aid the flagging parliamentary cause (Dixhorn, 2004).
The Scots responded positively and, two months after the Assembly's first session, ratified the Solemn League and Covenant that provided the English parliament with a Scottish military force. Although the Scots made up only one tenth of those who sat on the Assembly they proved 'the most united' religious faction at Wesminster, and among subjects discussed was the observance of religious festivals.
Which brings us to the key date of 1583, because that was the year that the Scottish Kirk, under the direction of the Calvinist reformer John Knox, had prohibited the celebration of Christmas. James I had re-introduced the observance of the nativity in 1618 in an attempt to achieve a religious consensus between his two kingdoms but his action had been declared unlawful by the Glasgow Assembly when Scotland broke from the Crown's authority in 1638 (Pilmot, 1960; Houston, 2008). English puritanism may have forbade Christmas in 1644, but Scottish Presbyterianism got there long before.
The parliamentary ordinance enforcing the fast on 25 December 1644 stressed that:
all Scholars, Apprentices, and other Servants shall . . . have such convenient reasonable Recreation and Relaxation from their constant and ordinary Labours on every second Tuesday in the moneth throughout the year, as formerly they have used to have on such aforesaid Festivals, commonly called Holy-dayes (Firth & Rait, 1911).
In place of Christmas, Easter and other religious festivals, Parliament granted working people a day's holiday every month. Had this remained in place, the UK population would today enjoy twelve bank holidays a year instead of the eight it now has. How sad that this fact has dropped out of the folk-memory of the Civil War Christmas, supplanted instead by the humourless spectre of Oliver Cromwell confiscating people's mince pies.
December 2017 (updated 2021)
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A Directory for the Public Worship of God Throughout the Three Kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland (Edinburgh: 1645)
Firth, C. H. and Rait, R. S. (eds.) Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660 (London: 1911)
Journal of the House of Commons, vol. 3, 1643-1644 (London, 1802)
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Larminie, V. "Sitting at Christmas: getting business done, 1643", The History of Parliament (2019)[website] available: https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2019/12/19/sitting-at-christmas-getting-business-done-1643/ (Accessed 18/12/20)
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Russell, C. 'Pym, John (1584-1643)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2004); online edn., May 2009 (Accessed, 10.12.2016).
Reformation History [website] The Reformed Presbyterian Church (2010). Available: http://reformationhistory.org/. (Accessed 09/12/2017)