This is Past Tense, a podcast about history. This season, we’re talking about the British Civil Wars, or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. If this is your first time listening, you’re probably best off heading back to the beginning, because history is full of names and terminology, and the last thing we want is for you to get lost.
This week we’re pausing for another quick bonus episode, because it’s nearly Christmas, we here at Past Tense are in an unusually festive mood, and if there’s one thing you probably know about the British Civil Wars and Christmas, it’s that Oliver Cromwell banned it. Except he didn’t. So in the vein following on from last episode of not giving Oliver Cromwell any more credit for things he didn’t do than we can possibly get away with, this week we’re going to talk about what Christmas looked like in the 1640s, when it was still widely celebrated, the 1650s when it wasn’t, and how England and Scotland got from one state to the other - and back again.
Just like these days, a lot of early seventeenth century festivities - Christmas included - centred heavily around eating and drinking. There was a feast, often containing lots of different kinds of meat - boar, pork, mutton, veal, and others. There was a ritual called wassailing, which still takes place in some parts of England today, involving going from house to house demanding alcoholic drinks and money, which I swear was more fun than it sounds. By December, most of the wine from the previous year had probably either been drunk or gone bad, so the drink that was usually used was called lambswool, a warm mulled ale with baked apples floating in it. Wassailing also involved a lot of loud singing, and there are still plenty of wassailing-related songs sung around Christmas time in England. There were party games, there was dancing, there were mince pies - which are still one of my favourite things about Christmas, they’re made not with minced meat but spiced fruit. There was also a fantastic tradition by which one person was appointed Lord of Misrule, to preside over festivities. The Lord of Misrule had been a Tudor tradition that was most popular in the court of Edward VI, but by the seventeenth century it was much more of a rural thing that turned up in communities all over the country. One of my favourite discoveries is that the Scottish equivalent of the Lord of Misrule was called the Abbot of Unreason - again, that didn’t go down so well in Presbyterian Scotland so the tradition had largely died out by the end of the sixteenth century, but still, what a name.
The running theme of the Lord of Misrule and other ways that Christmas was celebrated in England was that Christmas was a festival of community, but also of the upending of what usually counted as social norms. The idea of baby Jesus being born in a stable was the opposite of what you’d expect for a leader, and so the traditions of the early seventeenth century English involved doing the opposite of what you’d expect from the rest of the year. The twelve days of Christmas which you probably now associate with singing about partridges in pear trees, but in the early seventeenth century they were twelve days of community-based festivities, starting from Christmas Day on December 25th. There was an emphasis on charity, and hospitality, and poor tenants and other folk were often invited to sit in their lord’s hall for the customary feast. Giving gifts to your servants if you had them was also a tradition that became popular in the 1620s and 30s. A century or so later, that would morph into giving workers boxes of gifts on the day after Christmas Day, which is how we got the name “Boxing Day”.
Unfortunately for most people, when in 1640 King Charles had to call Parliament back together again to help him with the war in Scotland, Parliament contained a lot of Puritans. We met the Short Parliament briefly at the end of Episode 4 - they got called in April 1640 and lasted a grand total of three weeks. At the end of May, he called them back again, and that Parliament is known as the Long Parliament because they were still going when war broke out, so the session technically lasted unbroken til 1653. But the point is, the majority of members of the Long Parliament leaned very much towards the Puritan, and they had a very different view of what the practice of religion ought to look like. So from the end of 1640 they closed a lot of taverns - or whatever were deemed to be “unnecessary alehouses”. They imposed fines for swearing, and put in place a lot of other measures supposedly to improve public morality. And on top of that, Puritanism is about simplicity, and big old festivals and Lord of Misrule are rather the opposite of that, so they banned all religious festivals - not just Christmas but Easter and Whitsuntide and all the rest. Instead, they insisted that the last Wednesday of every month should be a fasting day, so that everyone could think more carefully about God. Ban Christmas, replace it with monthly fasting. Hooray. They even got rid of mince pies, which honestly is the real travesty here.
To be clear, this ban was put in place long before Oliver Cromwell got anywhere near being in charge of Parliament - the people responsible for it were the Long Parliament, from 1640 onwards before the wars had even broken out, and then increasingly throughout the 1640s. And surprising absolutely no one, the ban was about as popular as the plague. So most people ignored it. They were almost immediately in the middle of a civil war, everything was in flux, at that time of year what most people needed was a good party, so they could largely get away with ignoring it. And so they did, as far as they were able to - and where they weren’t able to, there were pro-Christmas protests around the country. They had no effect. When the King was imprisoned in 1646, the ends of Parliament most likely to be opposed to big celebrations of religious holidays were most definitely on their way up, and from then on the ban on Christmas started to be more strictly enforced.
Oliver Cromwell, on the other hand, didn’t become the head of the English state until 1653, by which point the celebration of Christmas had largely been stamped out around the country. But a lot of people weren’t really happy about it, and Cromwell did quite enthusiastically enforce the ban, and that’s how he got the reputation for banning Christmas - even though the actual ban happened long before he took the wheel.
Some historians - and personally I think they’re reaching a bit but it’s a nice idea nevertheless - argue that in fact, Cromwell saved Christmas, by dying early enough that England at least hadn’t got into the habit of not celebrating it, before the restoration of the monarchy brought the whole festival back again. The biggest difference between before and after, I’m sorry to say, was the loss of the tradition of having a Lord of Misrule. Presumably by 1660 everyone had had quite enough turning upside down of the social order, quite enough misrule, and quite enough people lording over it, to last them quite some time.
Interestingly enough, Scotland had already banned Christmas, way back in the 1560s. James VI had tentatively tried to bring it back because he rather liked it, but if the English Puritans didn’t like Christmas, the Scottish Presbyterians certainly weren’t going to be having any of it, and as soon as the Scots beat Charles in the Bishops’ Wars in 1640, they promptly banned it again. Because Scotland spent so much longer than England not celebrating Christmas, there was one big knock-on effect that you can still see today - December is a horrible month if you have nothing to look forward to, so they had to have an outlet for pretty lights and eating good things at roughly that time of the year, and in order to circumvent the fact that Christmas was out, a Scottish tradition sprung up that involved celebrating the turn of the new year. So in Scotland, it’s even less Cromwell’s fault than it is in England - Christmas was banned long before he was even born. Ever since then, new year - or as it’s often called in Scotland, Hogmanay - has been a much bigger tradition up here than Christmas was. December 25th actually only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958 - and as anyone who’s ever been near a Scottish town centre on the night of December 31st knows, Hogmanay is still very important in Scotland to this day.
Past Tense is brought to you by Feasibly Productions. It was written by me, Fiona Barnett. The producer is Emily Benita, the sound editor and technical producer is Ali Alnajjar, the historical consultant is Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and composed by Harry Harris. For this episode I’ve particularly relied on the work of Professor Diane Purkiss, whose book The English Civil War: A People’s History is spectacular, and gets into all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies. A bibliography for every episode, including all the little bonus ones like this one, is available at pasttensepod.com. If you have a moment to spare, please do review us on iTunes or wherever you found us.
You may have heard recently that there’s been a little bit of kerfuffle with Patreon, which is the funding platform we’ve been using recently. If funding Past Tense is a thing you’d like to help out with, first of all thank you so much, it’s people like you that mean we can keep going. Second of all, we’re still going to use Patreon, now that the proposed changes aren’t being rolled out, but if you’d prefer to help us in a different way, there are a range of options available at pasttensepod.com/supportus. If you’d like to say hello to us, please do - you can find us on Facebook and Twitter under the handle @pasttensepod. If you celebrate Christmas, have a wonderful one; if you don’t, have a lovely winter break - either way, we’re all sticking two fingers up at the Puritans over the next week or so, and I think it’s things like that that really bring people together. The last episode of this volume will come out in the first week of the new year. See you then!