Monday, December 21, 2020

Are any Cromwell-era anti-Christmas laws still on the statute book?

With what COVID-19 has done to this year's Christmas festivities, there has been a resurgence of stories - true and false - about the supposed previous attempt to "ban Christmas" under Oliver Cromwell.

To cut a long story short, the title of this post is what John Rentoul of the Independent calls a QTWTAIN - a Question To Which The Answer Is No.

Cromwell was for a time the leader of the hardline puritan faction within parliament and effectively became military dictator of Britain on the basis of support from that faction and the military might of what started as the parliamentary army (but supported Cromwell when he sacked parliament.) There is no doubt that this faction did make some attempts to crack down on Christmas festivities.

Nor is there any doubt that these attempts reached their zenith during the period of Cromwell's military dictatorship known as the "Rule of the major-generals" when England and Wales were divided into eleven regions each subject to the control of a military commander. This could not have happened without at least acquiescence from Cromwell.

However, there is room for doubt about whether Oliver Cromwell himself was a driving force behind the attempts to "Ban Christmas" or merely went along with them to satisfy his power base. And there is no question that when it became clear that this policy was wildly unpopular, Cromwell started to back down from it. 

None of these laws and prohibitions are still on the statue book today. Those which Cromwell didn't himself remove were gleefully repealed after the Monarchy was restored in 1660 by Charles II and the "Cavalier Parliament." The process which the incoming Royalist regime milked for every last drop of propaganda value - and who can blame them - with such success that to this day Cromwell is remembered for four things: 

  • winning the civil war, 
  • beheading the King, 
  • murdering lots of Irish people (in Scotland they still remember he also killed quite a few Scots) 

        - and trying to ban Christmas.   


The first three statements are true, as is a far more serious charge than banning Christmas, that Cromwell once firmly in power abolished the very parliament and embryonic democracy that he had come to power by supposedly fighting for. But although the charge that he tried to stop people celebrating Christmas is not entirely false, the truth, as so often proves the case, is much more nuanced that popular myth would have us believe.

There is an interesting article on the subject - far too much of an apologia for Cromwell for me to entirely agree with it, but a useful corrective to the popular myths about Cromwell and Christmas - by Paul Lay on "The Article" site here.

 

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