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Did Oliver Cromwell Really Ban Christmas?

Statue of Oliver Cromwell
Market Hill, St Ives, Cambridgeshire

Listed: 1972
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for the statue of Oliver Cromwell

Statue of Oliver Cromwell in Market Hill, St Ives, Cambridgeshire, where Cromwell lived from 1631-1636
Statue of Oliver Cromwell in Market Hill, St Ives, Cambridgeshire, where Cromwell lived from 1631-1636

Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire in 1599, and was Member of Parliament for the town for a year (1628-29). Today the statue of him that looks down on the townspeople of nearby St Ives, where he lived from 1631 to 1636, is listed at Grade II in recognition of his importance as a renowned local and national figure. It's a commonly held belief that Cromwell 'banned' Christmas. His reputation as a highly puritanical political leader has always been hotly debated, and as with all controversial figures, myths and legends about his famously zealous character have proliferated. So is it fair to say that Cromwell 'banned' Christmas, and if not, where did this story begin?

A Cromwellian Christmas

It's certainly true that, during Cromwell's reign as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653-58), stricter laws were passed to catch anyone holding or attending a special Christmas church service. From 1656, legislation was enacted to ensure that every Sunday was stringently observed as a holy day - the Lord's Day. By contrast, shops and markets were told to stay open on 25 December, and in the City of London soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for Christmas celebrations.
 

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, attributed to Jonathan Richardson the Elder, which hangs at Boscobel House in Shropshire
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, attributed to Jonathan Richardson the Elder, which hangs at Boscobel House in Shropshire

A Puritanical position

It's important, however, to consider these measures within the context of the Puritan movement that began in the 16th century. Christmas then, as now, was a time of both long-cherished rituals and excessive social behaviour. From the mid-1500s, objections to supposedly frivolous additions to the religious calendar, like Christmas, were voiced by Puritan leaders and pamphleteers like Philip Stubbs. They saw Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities, to (in Stubbs' words) the 'great dishonour of God'. The discontent felt within the Puritan community towards festivals led to the enactment of forceful legislation even before Cromwell's protectorate. In January 1645, Parliament produced a new Directory for Public Worship that made clear that festival days, including Christmas, were not to be celebrated but spent in respectful contemplation.

Giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights

On 19 December 1643, an ordinance was passed encouraging subjects to treat the mid-winter period 'with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights'. The rejection of Christmas as a joyful period was reiterated when a 1644 ordinance confirmed the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. From this point until the Restoration in 1660, Christmas was officially illegal. Although Cromwell himself did not initiate the banning of Christmas, his rise to power certainly resulted in the promotion of measures that severely curtailed such celebrations. Nevertheless the Puritans' prohibition of Christmas proved very unpopular, and pro-Christmas riots broke out.

Cromwell remembered

Cromwell is the subject of two listed statues: he stands outside the House of Commons in Westminster as well as perching atop the plinth at Market Hill in St Ives. The latter statue is bronze and set on a Portland stone base, which is approached by a step. Paid for by public subscription, it was created in around 1901 by the sculptor F W Pomeroy. Although it was erected about 340 years after Cromwell's death, some officials of the town still could not bring themselves to attend the ceremony to unveil it, proving that the former Lord Protector remained a controversial figure centuries on. When Christmas approaches, let's remember how lucky we are that the smell of our turkey being cooked and the sight of holly decorating our front door won't make us liable for arrest!

Close up of the Oliver Cromwell statue in St Ives, Cambridgeshire
Close up of the St Ives statue © Keith Evans and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.
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