University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Christmas under the puritans

Dr Fiona McCall is a Senior Lecturer in early modern history, teaching a third-year module on the British Civil Wars, the first-year Beliefs, Communities and Conflicts module and a second year option, Underworlds. Her research investigates traditionalist resistance to puritan values in English parish churches during the 1640s and 1650s, and in this post, updated with further research from an earlier one, she discusses how Christmas was banned during this period.

Between Two Fires, Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Tate shows puritans around a table.

Between Two Fires, Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Tate

Christmas was officially banned during the late 1640s and 1650s along with the rest of the church calendar.  But the interdict was widely ignored.  Trawling through various counties’ quarter sessions depositions for the period, I have found frequent references to Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, and various saints days, the witnesses (even those testifying against suspected royalists) usually oblivious to the fact that these festivals are no longer supposed to be celebrated.  At Bristol the Mayoral court was even postponed from December to January ‘because the feast of Christmas comes betweene’.[1]  Some were clearly mindful that Christmas was a sensitive issue: a 1651 Cheshire case refers to the ‘tyme Commonly called Christmas’, while a 1655 Northern Circuit assize deposition refers to the twelfth day after Christmas ‘so commonly Called’ [2]   The term ‘Christide’ was frequently preferred instead, but not by everyone: one Devonshire witness timed the events he reported to ‘the Feast of the birth of our Lord god last past’. [3]

Josiah King, The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas (1658)

Churches were supposed to be closed on Christmas Day and shops open.  That was the theory, anyway. At Norwich in 1647, the Mayor of Norwich apparently gave notice that Christmas Day was to be observed, the market kept the day before instead, and even invited the ejected Bishop of Norwich, Joseph Hall, to preach in the Cathedral. [4]  The authorities in Canterbury attempted a harder line.  On the 22 December 1647, the town crier there proclaimed that a market was to be kept on Christmas day.  This ‘occasioned great discontent among the people’ causing them to ‘rise in a rebellious way’, throwing shopkeepers’ ware ‘up and down’ until they shut up shop, and knocking down the mayor when he attempted to quell the ‘tumult’ with a cudgel.  [5] ‘That which we so much desired that day was but a Sermon’, protested Canterbury Prebendary Edward Aldey, ‘which any other day of the weeke was tollerable by the orders and practise of the two Houses and all their adherents, but that day (because it was Christ’s birth day).  [6] Elsewhere in Kent, parishioners crowded round the puritan minister Richard Culmer’s reading desk in protest at the lack of a Christmas day service, and assaulted him in the churchyard. [7] Gloucestershire minister Mr Tray, unpopular on account of his opposition to the festival, became the target of malicious rumours.  Stories were spread that he had sabotaged the Christmas pies of his parishioners, baking in the communal oven, by sending his own unconventional confection to be baked alongside them.  Lines of verse were placed under Tray’s cushion in the pulpit:

Parson tray, on Christmas Day

To help on reformation

Instead of the word did bake a t[urd]

And poyson’d his congregation  [8]


The controversy over whether or not to celebrate the festival continued throughout the interregnum. Puritan writers attacked the festival as a ‘Pagan-Popish Strumpet’, tempting people towards ‘Antichristian darknesse’.[9] But others openly defended it in print as a feast long celebrated to honour Christ, and one still celebrated in Protestant churches across Europe. [10] From these publications arguing for and against the festival we can gain a sense of the sort of traditions practised by those attempting to circumvent the ban.  Many aspects of today’s Christmas are inventions of the Victorian period and were completely absent: Christmas cards, Christmas trees, Christmas stockings.  There were ‘New Years’ Gifts’ but no Christmas presents.  Santa Claus and all the traditions associated with him were unheard of, although there was some concept of ‘Father Christmas’ as can be seen from the title and illustration to Josiah King’s 1658 satire which imagined Christmas on trial at the assizes, charged with drunkenness, gluttony, lasciviousness, idleness and other vices, who nevertheless remained beloved ‘by the Country people, some shrieking and crying for the old man’.[11] John Taylor’s Christmas In and Out (1652) similarly personifies Christmas as a grey-haired old man, given ‘small comfort’ in London and many other parts of the country, but a much warmer welcome by country farmers in Devon and Cornwall.[12] Feasting and charity to the poor had long been a central aspect of the celebration: Taylor castigates those who chose to ‘starve the poor’ rather than offering traditional open-housed Christmas hospitality.  Some attempted to keep up such traditions. In his diary, Berkshire gentleman Anthony Blagrave notes that he had given dinner to sixty-nine ‘poor folks’ at his house at Bulmersh on Christmas day 1652.[13]  In Ludlow in Shropshire in 1658 the bailiffs gave out clothes to the poor at Christmas ‘as hath byn accustomed’.[14] Foodstuffs then associated with Christmas feasts include turkey, capons, collars of brawn, roast beef, mutton and goose. The Vindication of Christmas (1652/3) describes a hearth ‘imbrodered all over with roasted Apples, piping hot’ and drinking ale ‘the colour of warm lambswool’.[15]  Mince or plum pies or puddings, mentioned repeatedly in print, attracted a surprising amount of animosity from the puritans.  There is a lovely story, recalled by the son of a Wiltshire loyalist, of parliamentary soldiers attacking a chest full of mince pies with swords, crying out ‘monstrous superstition’. [16]  There were also bans, according to Edward Fisher, on ringing bells, trimming the church and house with holly and ivy and on Christmas boxes: the custom of giving these out to those who have provided service, the origin of the term ‘Boxing Day’, dates back to the early seventeenth century.[17] Thomas Warmestry in his A Vindication of Christmas-Day (1659) approves of some of the popular customs associated with Christmas such as Christmas carols, ‘if they be such as are fit for the time, and of holy and sober’, but not others: ‘Yule games’ he passes over and ‘blazes’ he positively disapproves of.[18]  Much disapproved of by the puritans were interludes or plays, dancing, card-playing and games, which included ones called ‘Hotcockles’ and ‘shooing the wild mare’.[19]

Nativity scene by 17th century artist Wenceslas Hollar

Nativity scene by 17th century artist Wenceslas Hollar

Churchwardens’ accounts suggest that Christmas was openly celebrated in some churches: at Dinton in Wiltshire in 1653 accounts record payments for bread and wine at Christmas, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. [20]  Christmas communions are recorded at Hartland in Devon in 1647, 1651 and 1656.[21]  Anthony Blagrave’s minister Mr Sexby got round the ban by offering communions near to but not actually on Easter or Christmas day.[22] Some parishioners objected vocally when Christmas services were held. At Twerton in Somerset in 1654, a parishioner derogated a Christmas Eve communion there as ‘three pints of wine and a peny Loaf’.[23] In 1658, at Midsomer Norton in the same county, Tobias Gullocke, a blacksmith, interrupted Mr Thurlby’s sermon, later being heard to say that ‘Christ was a bastard’.  A ‘mutiny’ ensued, until Gullocke was frogmarched out. [24]

‘Wee have heard of the persecution and imprisonment of Ministers for attempting to preach the Word of God, upon the festival of Christs Nativity, wrote Thomas Warmestry.[25]  John Allington was ejected from his living at Wardley in Rutland in 1655 and later published a copy of the charges. What appears to have prompted his ejection was gentleman Edward Freeman and his wife Dorothy travelling two and a half miles from Ayston to Wardley to hear him read Common Prayer on Christmas day 1653. [26] There were intermittent arrests of groups of Anglicans or Catholics attending Christmas services.  In 1650 twelve French and English Catholics were indicted at Middlesex Quarter Sessions for ‘hearing mass said and sung’ on Christmas Day.[27] On 22 December 1657 the Council of State expressed concern at the ‘multitudes of people’ meeting to hear Common Prayer services led by Peter Gunning and Jeremy Taylor in the chapel at Exeter House in London; three days later the diarist John Evelyn was amongst those arrested for attending a Christmas day service there.[28] Royalist sources also reported the arrest of Catholics taking mass at the Venetian ambassador’s residence in 1655 and of French congregations attending Christmas services in 1657.[29]

More secular Christmas activities were also penalised.  In 1655 even celebrated parliamentary general Sir Thomas Fairfax did not escape being fined five shillings for allowing interludes in his house in Yorkshire at Christmas.[30]  A number of presentments for drinking and disorderly alehouses during the traditional twelve-day Christmas period probably relate to Christmas conviviality. In January 1655 Exeter constable John Crosse reported that on Christmas day 1654 there were a great number of persons in the high street behaving in a disorderly and riotous manner, but no-one would come to his assistance against them.[31]

Problems particularly occurred when Christmas day fell on the Sunday, the ‘Lord’s Day’, which was supposed to be exclusively dedicated to religious worship, bible reading and prayer.  At Cirencester, Richard Brittain reportedly took  ‘umbrage’ at the ‘uncommon large auditory’ he received when his market day sermon happened to fall on Christmas day, telling people how ‘grieved’ he was to see so many people at church for the wrong reasons. [32]

Bringing in preachers from outside was one way to circumvent the ban, placating parishioners who desired to celebrate the festival, while avoiding personal responsibility for what was taking place.  William Dell at Yeldon in Bedfordshire, on Christmas Day 1659, his enemies reported, ‘countenanced’ ‘one Bunyon of Bedford a Tinker’ ‘to speake in his Pulpitt to the Congregacion and noe Orthodox Minster did officiate in the Church that day’.[33] Perhaps even puritans were beginning to recognise that opposing a festival that gave pleasure to many was counter-productive and pointless.  After the Restoration attitudes promptly reversed, with a bull-beating staged in Buckfastleigh in Devon on 26 December 1660 and a Dagenham man, Richard Mathewson, in trouble with his local authorities for opening his shop window at Christmas ‘in a contemptible way’.[34]



[1] Bristol Record Office, JMAY 1651-3.

[2] Cheshire Record Office, QJF 79/1 Easter 1651; National Archives, ASSI 45/5/2, 1655.

[3] Devon Heritage Centre, QS/4/60, Easter 1656.

[4] Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS D1104, fo. 6b, letter dated 9 October 1647.

[5] Canterbury Christmas (London, 1648)

[6] Edward Aldey, The Declaration of many thousands of the City of Canterbury…. (London, 1647), 6; Scott Hendrix, Riot and Resistance in County Norfolk 1646-50 (New York), 28.

[7] R. Culmer, A Parish Looking Glass for persecutors, (London, 1657), 15-18.

[8] Bodleian Library, MS J. Walker: C1, fo. 250r.

[9] Mercurius Religiosus (London, 1651), 7-8.

[10] E. Fisher, A Christian Caveat to the Old and New Sabbatarians (London, 1650), 29.

[11] J. King, The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas, at the assizes of Difference, in the County of Discontent (London, 1658), 10, 16

[12] John Taylor, Christmas In and Out (1652), 12, 14-15.

[13] Bodleian Library MSS Eng.Misc. e. 118: Diary of Anthony Blagrave, 1649-52, fo. 86v.

[14] Shropshire Archives, Ludlow Minute Book 1648-80, 155

[15] The Vindication of Christmas (1652/3), 8.

[16] Bodleian Library, MS J. Walker, C5, fos 19-20.

[17] Fisher, Christmas Caveat, 23.

[18] Thomas Warmestry, The Vindication of Christmas-Day (1659), 24.

[19] Taylor, Christmas In and Out, 16

[20] Lambeth Palace MS 3152, fos 87-7.

[21] I. Gregory (ed.), Hartland Church Accounts, 1597-1706 (Frome, 1950).

[22] Bodleian Library MSS Eng.Misc. e. 118: Diary of Anthony Blagrave, 1649-52, fos 52r&v, 89r

[23] Somerset Heritage Centre, Q/SR/90/35, 2 January 1655.

[24] Somerset Heritage Centre, Q/SR/96/30, 26 December 1658.

[25] Warmestry, Vindication, 23.

[26] John Allington, An Apology for the Sequestred Clergy (1649), preface to the reprint included with The Reform’d Samaritan (1673).

[27] ‘Middlesex Sessions Rolls: 1650’, in Middlesex County Records: Volume 3, 1625-67, ed. John Cordy Jeaffreson (London, 1888), pp. 193-200. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/middx-county-records/vol3/pp193-200, G. D. R., . . . ., 1651.

[28] TNA, SP 18/158 f.95.

[29] TNA, SP 18/123 f.72, 10 January 1655/6.

[30] North Yorkshire R.O., QSM 2/10, fos 14r&v, Ne.w Malton, 10 July 1655.

[31] Devon Heritage Centre, ECA QS Order Book 1642-1660, fo. 275r, 10 January 1654/5.

[32] Bodleian Library, MS J. Walker, C7, fo. 12r.

[33] Presumed to be John Bunyan, the nonconformist author of Pilgrim’s Progress.

[34] Essex Record Office, Q/SR 389/35; Devon Heritage Centre, QS/4/67.

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