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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Supplemental. The War on Christmas. As you know, the triumph of Parliament over the King in the First Civil War put a bunch of Puritans in power.
This bunch of Puritans wasted no time trying to implement a whole series of religious reforms, designed to roll back not only Archbishop Laud’s recent innovations to the Church of England, but also anything that struck them as an ungodly relic of Catholicism. And one ungodly relic of Catholicism that had been bugging them for a long time were the big holidays on the religious calendar – Easter, Whitsun, and of course, Christmas.
Now that they were in a position to do something about it, the Puritans got together in the mid-1640s and decided to try and abolish Christmas. During the 17th century, Christmas was observed by having everyone take a day off, close up their shops, and head down to church to hear a nice sermon.
But beyond that, the people of England also enjoyed the full 12 days of Christmas – an extended period of midwinter festivities, celebrated by drinking, and dancing, and eating delicious pies, and more drinking, and gift-giving, and gambling, and more drinking. And as much as Puritans didn’t like things that smacked of potpourri, they really didn’t like things that smacked of a good time. This is when I break out H. L. Mencken’s famous definition of Puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
If you combine fun and potpourri, well then you’ve got something that the Puritans would very much like to kill stone dead.
As soon as the King was driven out of London at the start of the First Civil War, calls immediately started going out for Parliament to stop observing Christmas. But even in London, the heart of the Puritan parliamentary cause, the attempt to abolish this very popular holiday met with open resistance. In 1643, which would be just after the solemn League and Covenant was signed, some Puritan shopkeepers in the city tried to stay open on Christmas Day, but they were met by a mob of angry apprentices who tried to rabble rabble them back into closing. Life as an apprentice was hard enough without a bunch of joyless zealots trying to steal one of their few bits of fun. But the alliance with the Scots meant that the push against Christmas only picked up steam from there.
The next year, Christmas coincidentally fell on the same day as a regular monthly fast, and Parliament announced that people ought to observe the latter rather than the former. Shortly thereafter, a new Directory of Worship was published that struck Christmas from the calendar, not that anyone actually read the new Directory of Worship. After the defeat of Charles at Naseby in 1646, the attacks on Christmas intensified further, but again, popular pushback led to confrontations in the street. And again, not from Puritan mobs trying to force merchants to stay open, but from commoner mobs trying to force Puritan shopkeepers to stay closed.
I think it’s safe to say that the attempt to abolish Christmas was not exactly the most popular thing Parliament ever tried to do. The fight over Christmas was actually a big enough deal that there was a running battle in the popular media all through the 1640s about it. By popular media, I mean not just the presses, but also in plays and songs designed to rally commoners to one side or the other.
The arguments in favor were about maintaining old traditions and celebrating the birthday of the Savior, and noting the good charity work done during the Christmas season. The arguments against Christmas were that there was no basis for it in Scripture. We don’t even know if it was Jesus’ birthday, and it’s rank potpourri. Opponents of Christmas also started noticing the eerie alignment of Christmas with the Roman’s old celebration of Saturnalia. So this wasn’t just about fighting a Catholic celebration, it was about fighting a downright pagan celebration.
Uprising came to a head in 1647, which is, let’s see, right before the Second Civil War. And if you will recall, the Second Civil War in England was defined by what? A series of popular uprisings scattered across the country, right? Well, I didn’t talk about this at the time, but the Puritan War on Christmas played a role in sparking those uprisings.
With Parliament now in control, and the natives getting restless, the attempt to suppress Christmas exacerbated existing tensions, and there were riots in Norwich and Ipswich where, and I’m just going to pass this along since it was reported at the time, though who knows if it was actually true, a guy named Christmas was actually killed. In London, the Lord Mayor and his deputies attempted to remove some public decorations, and they were met by an angry mob. But by far the biggest uprising was down in Canterbury, the ancient home of England’s senior archbishop.
Puritans on the county council outlawed any celebration of quote, that darling of rude and licentious behavior called Christmas, unquote. But the locals were really not on board with this, and they gathered for their Christmas sermon anyway. Riots quickly got out of hand, no doubt partly due to the fact that someone started giving away free beer to anyone who set up a holly bush outside their front door. The mayor’s house was attacked, the crowd started chanting pro-royalist slogans, and by the end of the day the rioters actually controlled the city government. Troops had to be called in to reassert parliamentary command of the city.
So this was, of course, all a prelude to the uprisings that were about to sweep England, especially in the eastern counties, and spark the second civil war. So obviously there is more going on here than just a deeply felt attachment to Christmas. But Parliament was not doing itself any favors. The Christmas riots of 1647 turned out to be the most vocal and violent pushback, and during the Commonwealth era both sides settled into a kind of stalemate.
In 1650 the Council of State recommended increasing penalties for those who observed Christmas. In 1652 the Rump ordered shops to stay open and businesses to be protected from street mobs. In 1656 the Second Protectorate Parliament met on Christmas Day to debate a bill on how to stop celebrations in London. And the next year they recommended to the mayor of London that he do a better job policing the holiday. All of which tells us two things.
First, there was an active group in government who really, really wanted to do away with Christmas. And second, that no one was listening to them. An ironic result of this stalemate was that it wound up promoting exactly the kind of drunken merrymaking that the Puritans were so fundamentally opposed to. You see, it was a pretty simple thing to make sure that the churches were closed so no one could go down and hear a Christmas sermon, but it was super hard to make a shopkeeper stay open if he didn’t want to. So on Christmas Day all the churches would be locked up, and all the shops would be locked up, so what were you supposed to do?
Well I can tell you, the taverns are open. Come the Restoration, Christmas was restored to its place along with the monarchy, and it has stayed there ever since. People can adapt to all kinds of change, big and small, temporary and permanent, but just seriously don’t mess with the holidays unless you want a riot on your hands.
After the Puritans came to power they tried to abolish Christmas. Seriously.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
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- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
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