University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Have yourself a puritan Christmas

Dr Fiona McCall is a lecturer in early modern history, teaching units on the British Civil Wars, and Crime, Sin and Punishment in early modern Britain, amongst others. Her current research project investigates traditionalist resistance to puritan values in English parish churches during the 1640s and 1650s, and in this blog she discusses how Christmas was banned during this period.

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. [10] Josiah King’s 1658 satire 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] 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. [12]  Christmas communions are recorded at Hartland in Devon in 1647, 1651 and 1656.[13]  But 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’.[14] 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. [15]

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. [16]

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’. [17] Perhaps even puritans were beginning to recognise that opposing a festival that gave pleasure to many was counter-productive and pointless.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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