A Mince Pie
Image: Kevin Spencer
This sort of tale is often repeated, It is rubbish. The BBC, backed by the Law Commission, as well as Wikipedia, and the Cromwell Association all declare it to be an 'urban myth'. So where did the myth come from?
It is quite clear that a not inconsiderable, and powerful, set in England were once pretty sure that if God looked down from the sky to see His creatures making merry on His holy days, then he would be Angry and no doubt bring down some Divine Collective Punishment on everyone. But was this really ever made law? What Christmas foodstuffs, if any, got banned in England? Here's the full story. It goes on a bit, but it won't bore you ...
It is 1641 in England and King Charles I is desperately trying to keep control of a nation becoming ever more irritated by his profligate lifestyle and ridiculous war-mongering. Surely, if he could only make the common people more religious, they'd all quickly see that it was God who appointed the king, and that they should jolly well do what he says.
John Pettie in military uniform
And he wanted please the oh-so-holy 'Puritans' and their political 'Godly Party'. So out came a series of pro-religion ordinances. The one which interests us is of the 8th of January 1641, instituting a national day of fasting and prayer to be observed in Churches on the last Wednesday of every month.
Charles I as a Biblical Patriarch
Image: Painter unknown, National Portrait Gallery
But, of course, it was too late by then, the people weren't convinced of the Divine Right of the King. Charles seriously fell out with his, deeply religious, parliament, which led to some sort of a civil war. In fact before the war had even started (which is usually taken to be the Battle of Edgehill on 26 October 1642) Parliament, in August 1642, decided to start flexing is muscles. And where did it begin? With 'An Ordinance for the better observation of the monethly Fast.' This required that the King's fast-days should continue to be ...
"… should be generally, publikely, and solemnely holden and kept, as well by abstinence from food, as by publike Prayers, Preaching, and Hearing of the Word of God, and other Religious and Holy Duties, in all Cathedrals, Collegiate and Parish Churches, and Chappels within the Kingdome of England."
That was what churches and churchmen had to do, but what about the ordinary folks? The act enjoins them to "repaire to some Church or Chappell, there diligently and reverently to attend all such holy Duties" after which they are to be "earnestly exhorted and persuaded" to "forbeare to use all manner of Sportes and Pastimes ... and that all Vintners, Taverners, Alehouse-keepers, and keepers of Victualling-houses, doe forbeare to keep open their Doors" but only just "till the publike exercises, and religious duties of that day be past and over."
So this is legally-enforced fasting for vicars on holy-days, and stern official encouragement to do the same for everyone else, at least until the afternoon. But nothing is actually banned, and what about Christmas?
It happened that Christmas Day 1644 would have fallen on the last Wednesday of the month, so should it be a day for fasting or for feasting? To sort this out Parliament issued, on the 19th December 1644, 'An Ordinance for the better observation of the monethly Fast; and more especially the next Wednesday, commonly called The Feast of the Nativity of Christ'. Here it is in full...
Public notice to be given for observation of Monthly Fast till further order.; And on the next day, being Christmas Day, in particular.
Clearly, Parliament, or at least the 'Godly' faction in it, want Christmas Day to be one of fasting and contemplation, But this, take note, is a 'Public Notice', it isn't an Act, it is a recommendation. There's no mention of enforcement and there's no penalties for not following the advice.
After this they tried to get stricter. In June 1647 there was 'An Ordinance for Abolishing of Festivals', which declared that the...
"Festivals commonly called Holy-Dayes, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed. Be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled [that the] Feast of the Nativity of Christ, Easter and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival dayes, commonly called Holy-dayes, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holy-dayes within this Kingdome of England and Dominion of Wales"
This didn't actually ban festivals, it just said that they weren't to be officially observed any more. If you wanted to have a wild party on the 25th December, for no particular reason, that was quite up to you. The Ordinance went on to offer an encouragement to ignore the old festivals by allowing students, servants and apprentices a day off on the second Tuesday of each month instead. Which clearly didn't quite work as planned, because just three weeks later there came 'An Ordinance concerning days of Recreation allowed unto Scholars, Apprentizes and other Servants'. This made those second-Tuesdays into public holidays, banned apprentices and students from rioting or staying in pubs after 8pm, but allowed Masters to give their staff a different day off (say, oh, perhaps, Christmas day) in lieu of the Tuesdays.
That's it. No actual ban on Christmas and no mention anywhere of mince pies or puddings. Or turkey, or goose. Nor is there any evidence that the ordinances had much effect. Some enthusiasts did try to stop Christmas, at least at a local level. We know, for instance, that The Lord Mayor was repeatedly ordered by Parliament to ensure that London businesses stayed open on the 25th December. It didn't work though. When Parliament tried sitting on the 25th in 1656, Thomas Burton, one of the MP's, recollects one member complained that "You see how the people keep up these superstitious observations to your face ... One may pass from the Tower to Westminster and not a shop open nor a creature stirring", and another said he couldn't concentrate as he'd been kept up all night by the sounds of partying.
On 29 May 1660 Royal rule in the shape of 'The Merry Monarch' Charles II was restored and all the laws and ordinances of the Parliamentary Republic were publicly burned by the official hangman.
Of course, I could have missed something, so you might check it all for yourself:
Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660
So where from the story of the ban? It looks to originate from several ballad-sheets and pamphlets of the time which - in the 'Daily Express' type of way - just invent or exaggerate perceived grievances to make The Enemy seem much badder than they are, and, by comparison, Our Gang much better than we really are. There's this one, 'The World Turn'd Upside Down' from 1647...
The World Turn'd Upside Down, 1647
Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:
Now, a good story needs a human face, and a campaign needs a leader. The pamphleteers found one. Those 17th Century anti-Puritans came up with the image of a genial old man, dressed in winter furs, with a long beard and cosy hat. He was to represent the very idea of Old-Fashioned Christmas, the 'father' of his festival, from before the days when people started trying to tell you what you could and couldn't eat. It seems that it is He, not the Puritans or the Godly Party who have won the fight for Christmas.
The Vindication of Christmas (1652)
The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686)
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