Sunday 27 December 2015

Re-interpretting Cromwell and Christmas

It frequently  bugs me that the one thing that school textbooks and schemes of work always seem to include is an obligatory 'Cromwell - the man who banned Christmas' lesson. I refuse to be a part of this nonsense.

Whether you take the view that Cromwell was the man who made modern Britain, or the villain who participated in ethnic cleansing in Ireland, or, like me, believe he was a flawed man of his own class and time of huge morale courage who played a vital role in England's democratic revolution -  there are better and more important stories to be told about Cromwell.

It is of course quite true that from 1650 until the restoration of 1660 there were a number of restrictions placed on pubic festivities at Christmas time. Undoubtedly these were often unpopular with many people for whom Christmas was not just a religious festival, but part of a folk-tradition that saw a suspension of the the social order for a few days. But the restrictions on Christmas festivities did not just spring out of a despotic whim of Cromwell's kill-joy personality. 

For starters, there was also popular support for these measures from those layers of society who had been radicalised by the years of civil war. Inconvenient though it may be to our 21st Century liberal minds, we cannot really  separate the proto democratic socialism of the Levelers from the Puritan context that it sprang from. In fact long  before the civil war, in many parishes there had been a shift away from the medieval style celebration of Christmas with all its echoes of pre-Reformation England. This reflected a broad Puritan consensus in the country that Charles and his high-Church archbishop were increasing at odds with.

After the parliamentary victory in the first civil war,  there were also very practical political grounds for suppressing certain  public celebrations. Horse races, fairs and festivals were  becoming a frequent focus for protests and riots. Fear of an 'enemy within' attempting to usurp the new 'godly nation' was not simply paranoia,  there were frequent royalist plots and uprisings throughout the years of the Republic and Protectorate.

Finally Cromwell himself was far from a grim faced kill-joy. He enjoyed drinking, parties, music, dancing and had a particular taste for practical jokes and slapstick humour. The various proclamations against Christmas actually came not from the Lord Protector, but from the Council of State and parliament, and reflected much wider values and concerns than simply Cromwell's own particular hang-ups.

There are many genuine controversies about Cromwell. I would much rather teach a lesson about the Burford Mutiny to get across his  ambiguities and complexities - but painting him as a seventeenth century version of the Grinch doesn't do justice either to him or this important piece of history.

1 comment:

Dr Llareggub said...

Thanks for posting this on Cromwell. It shows - a little knowledge is a bad thing, and knowing so little about Cromwell the man I had simply accepted the standard version. Now I will look deeper into his life and politics. Thanks again. Best wishes for the New Year