When Christmas was cancelled

by frankbeswick

The year 1647 in Britain saw an attempt to ban Christmas. So what happened?

When extremists take power they work quickly to remodel society according to their ideological preferences. In the late 1640s England along with Scotland, Wales and Ireland fell into the hands of Protestant extremists, who dominated in parliament. These gloomy men obsessed with their own righteousness as the elect decided to restructure society to a standard of severity far in excess of the monasteries that their predecessors had gleefully destroyed. But the people fought back.

Who Took Over?

In 1647 the English Civil War was temporarily over. Charles the First was a prisoner of parliament, which was dominated by Oliver Cromwell and stuffed full of the victorious Protestant partisans. The Church of England had been abolished, its bishops deposed, and replaced by a Presbyterian church governance system of ministers. The Presbyterians were Calvinist in their theology and Puritan in their lifestyle. American readers will have met them already, for they were the   religious group present at Salem, and we know what happened there.  

A key puritan principle is, "Whatever is not a duty is a sin." In this way  they differed  from the joyful Catholics, whom they detested, with their love of feast days and belief that there can be Godly pleasure. Duties included reading the Bible, listening to preaching, prayer and diligent work. You should work hard and profitably, but as pleasure was not a duty you could not spend your money on pleasure, which is sinful. What's the point, you rightly ask, as did many other Christians at the time. But feast days, including Christmas and Easter, were banned and all festivities declared illegal, as these extremists took the opportunity to impose upon an unwilling nation an unattractive lifestyle that few wanted. Marriage celebrations were banned. You could wed, but have no party. Drinking alcohol could not be avoided, as ale was safer than water, but many alehouses were closed down.

Christmas came in for strict treatment. Puritans had had their eyes set on Christmas for the previous hundred years, because they accused it of being a time of carnal revelry rather than solemn and sober religious contemplation. While it is a myth that mince pies were banned, Christmas festivities, at which mince pies are eaten, were abolished and the ban enforced where possible by police and military action. Decorating houses with holly or other greenery  was banned,  as was the singing of Christmas carols. Partying was forbidden and dancing banned as a tool of the Devil.  Worse, Christmas day was declared a work day and shops were obliged to open, forcing their owners to abstain from celebrations.

The People Fight Back

Records for much of the country are scarce. Scottish clans ruled themselves and those of Catholic disposition would have ignored the rules. Wales was strongly Protestant and did not rebel. The Irish would  have done what they always did with English rules-ignore them, especially in the west. Northern England probably had some compliance and some disobedience, but the South East rebelled.

The first was Norwich in wool-prosperous East Anglia. Then known as England's second city, its inhabitants petitioned the mayor to allow Christmas celebrations. He could not allow them, but turned a blind eye to Christmas festivities. Kent, England's most south-easterly county, followed. In Canterbury, the county town of Kent, a traditional football match was held. These football matches were rumbustious occasions when local lads met for a wild time. Hardly Puritan sobriety! Partying spread across Kent and inspired responses in nearby London. Some householders contented themselves with a simple protest, bedecking their doors with holly or  other evergreens, but the Puritan mayor of London was verbally abused when he and some veteran troopers tore down decorations. In some towns gangs of  young men armed with spiked clubs toured shops forcing them to close. Armed force had to be used to bring the situation to order.

There was official response. In April 1648 officers were sent to Norwich to bring the mayor to London to account for his inaction While the messengers were conferring with the mayor a royalist riot broke out and turned into a rebellion. Unfortunately, the royalists had 98 barrels of gunpowder, which accidentally blew up in the town square, in what was called The Great Blow, which was heard through the whole county of Norfolk and resulted in up to forty dead. The implications of the riot were that eight people were hanged, seven people imprisoned and two whipped, along  with two witches executed. The mayor was not among them.

In the following Christmas similar riots broke out across the South-East, but this time royalists were integral to the situation, which was a stage in the kindling of the second civil war. But the Christmas riots showed that England was not Puritan and that there was a deep support for the king and the old order.


I was inspired to write this article by a  threat to Christmas celebrations  in the UK. The government, whom I heartily detest, actually did something right, allowing a cessation of certain covid measures over Christmas, five days of limited release for a population deprived of much socialisation  and fun. But certain medics objected and tried to scare the government into reversing their decision with talk of post-Christmas deaths and a health service overwhelmed. Their arguments were based on the traditional authoritarian nostrum that the  people cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves and so professionals must make decisions for them. These modern Puritans tried to by-pass the people by creating a press campaign intended to pressurise the government into reversal. This is a standard technique among extremists, cut the people out of the decision-making process and aim  for the leaders. 

The name for their attitude is paternalism, making decisions for people for their own good. True, governments must make some decisions, but there must always be significant space and time for personal liberty. I particularly object to the paternalistic  excuse for added restrictions, "protect Grandad." I am a grandad and when I want protection I will ask for it. I can choose for myself when to avoid situations, people  and places.

Their plan fortunately had limited success. The government merely changed its guidance, though the Scots and Welsh governments gave guidance stricter than the guidance in England. But forewarned is fore armed. The covid law is time limited and has just over a year to run. Libertarians must ensure that as the law expires these authoritarian medics do not successfully launch a campaign for just another year of restrictions, and then another. The price of freedom is constant vigilance.

Updated: 12/18/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/12/2021

Further to my comment on America's troubled situation post-election, my best wishes and prayers go out to my American readers and your great country in your striving to secure democracy.

frankbeswick on 01/09/2021

What people did privately was hard to control. Being made to work impeded celebrations.

Mince pies used to be a mixture of fruit and meat. Only in the nineteenth century was mince separated into fruit mince and mincemeat.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/08/2021

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practicalities and products.
Belated wishes to you and your family and to Veronica and hers for a Merry Christmas 2020 and a Happy New Year 2021.
It's always interesting to me to backtrack traditions to where there were points where they just might not have made it to nowadays.
Mince pie-making may not have been banned, but do we know if production and use were at all affected? Perhaps people who were told to work were not able to make all the mince pies that they needed or were not able to eat all the ones that they made... .
Would I recognize a mince pie from 1647 or would time have changed appearance and some ingredients?

Veronica on 12/26/2020

I hope you are all having a lovely Christmas and have managed to see ypour facmilies and friends .

dustytoes on 12/23/2020

Unfortunately no matter which way the election ends up going this country is very divided and it's sad to see. We need strong leadership, as do you.

frankbeswick on 12/23/2020

The app was to track corona virus cases, but in the wrong hands it could be a tool of oppression. Fortunately, while the government promised us a world-beating app, the results have been precisely the opposite, which you would expect from this lot. Could we hire Florida's governor to be our prime minister, he would be better than the incompetent who now governs the UK.

I must say that I am mightily impressed by the professional and calm way that the USA has handled the troubles over the election. A strong America is necessary for world peace and the preservation of democracy. I am glad to be an ally.

dustytoes on 12/22/2020

Frank & Veronica, an app to track people? The more control "they" get the more they will want... it is truly becoming ridiculous. I'm thankful that the Governor of Florida has common sense and is allowing things to get back to normal with businesses open and fewer regulations. He is getting a lot of heat for it, but he stands his ground. I do not trust the Covid numbers, nor the death from Covid numbers and people are being scared by listening to what I believe are mostly lies at this point. It is all about control and unfortunately many people are falling for it.
Merry Christmas...!!! Gather together and enjoy!

frankbeswick on 12/21/2020

I won't use the app. For the first time in my life I have heard occasional mutterings of independence for Northern England. It won't happen, but it shows how people are feeling. I think that the UK is breaking up.

Veronica on 12/21/2020

Thank you for your kind thoughts for our lovely family and Happy Christmas to all.

Our government has done a dreadful thing and has been trying to get us all on an App which tracks our movements everywhere. I won t sign up for it. I think there will be civil protest over Christmas i think. Here in North West England we ve been in Lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for nearly 10 months . LOCKDOWN obviously does not work. We need to learn to live with this as people did in the past.

Oliver Cromwell detested the moinarchy but wanted himself as king . Hypocrisy.

frankbeswick on 12/19/2020

BSG, refusing to control people in private is to America's credit.

Kris Kringle is not influential in the UK, except in the naorthern county of Yorkshire, but even there Santa is dominant.

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