Bah humbug! A cheerless Christmas under the Puritans

AT a time when Christmas and all its excessive trappings now seemingly extend retrospectively into November, it's perhaps worth recalling that the season of good-will once hardly ever existed.

While the excessive origins of Yuletide and merry Father Christmas are typically associated with the Victorians onwards, the history of Christmas was once one of very little cheer.

In the grip of a strict Puritan regime and under the controlling hand of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, during the second half of the 17th century, the festive season was a scant, sanctimonious affair.

Cromwell effectively banned Christmas during the period of his overlordship. His son and successor Richard followed in his joyless footsteps and it was only from the Restoration in 1660 onwards that the feast of "misrule" returned.

Prior to the Puritan ban, which covered much of Leeds, Bradford and York, and many other cities, Christmas in Tudor and medieval times was one often of uproar.

While auspiciously observing the birth of the Messiah, those celebrating Yule prior to 1649 often marked the period through licentiousness, festive frolics and with the "topsy-turvy" celebrations associated with Twelfth Night.

By the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted the locations at which kings celebrated Christmas.

The Plantagenet King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which 28 oxen and 300 sheep were eaten. The Yule boar was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts.

The Tudors were the first to bring the turkey to the table in 1519, though for the rich, the traditional meat on Christmas Day remained swan or goose. Peacocks were also on the menu for those with deep Christmas pockets.

The homes of the wealthy also woke to the smell of wild boar cooking on Christmas Day and its head was used as a dinner table decoration. 1587 is the first recorded date of sprouts being used in cooking.

But it was against this excessive and often gluttonous background that the Puritans decided to act, following the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

Dr Paul Cavill, from the University of Leeds, says: "It is correct say that Oliver Cromwell did ban Christmas; so too did the Protestants in the reformed Church of Scotland after 1560.

"Their fundamental objection was that Christmas was a non-scriptural tradition. In other words, it wasn't found in the Bible, and was thus merely a 'popeish superstition'."

Other historians have written widely on the Puritan observances of Christmas.

The late, distinguished historian Christopher Durston, in his seminal Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas 1642-60, states:

"During the 12 days of a 17th-century Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary and bays, holly and ivy; church services were widely attended, gifts were exchanged at New Year, and Christmas boxes were distributed to servants, tradesmen and the poor; great quantities of brawn, roast beef, 'plum-pottage', minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed, and the populace indulged

themselves in dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays.

"Such activities necessarily often led to drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess. In fact, the concept of 'misrule', or a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas, and has been viewed by historians as a useful safety-valve for the tensions within English society.

"It was precisely this face of Christmas, however, that the Puritans of 16th-and 17th-century England found so objectionable."

During the ban, pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities, including Canterbury and York. The ban on the holiday lasted for 13 years until 1660 at the Restoration of "good king" Charles II.

Although the Christmas clampdown was officially over, Christmas revelries were still frowned upon by some. By the 1820s, with Puritans diminished, a number of British writers noted the holiday had effectively "died out".

Dickens's A Christmas Carol and familial monarchical links across Europe did much to restore the traditional image and icons of the Christmas we now know and revere.

While recent Yorkshire Christmases in recession-hit Britain might have seemed austere, 300 years ago, it seems, humble piety may have been the only thing on the menu.