December 25, 2020 - 7:00am

Christmas Day 1656 was just another working day in Parliament under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Joachim Matthews, MP for Maldon in Essex, brought forward a Bill to reinforce the ban on Christmas. MP Luke Robinson complained that he had been kept awake all night by noisy festivities outside his lodgings, while another member said that he had walked from the Tower of London to Westminster and seen not a shop open.

Thanks to the Puritans, the public holiday of Christmas had been abolished in 1647, and was only restored along with the Monarchy in 1660. The Scots, ahead of the game as usual, first banned Christmas in 1583, under threat of excommunication.

But the British didn’t take kindly to having their winter festivities curtailed. Resistance ranged from satirical pamphlets to riots. A 1647 protest in Canterbury started with smashing up shops that dared open on Christmas day, and culminated in seizing control of the city in outright rebellion against the government.

So since we’re all having to re-think our Christmas celebrations this year, here’s how to party like it’s 1656:

  1. No mince pies, no Christmas pudding, and no sweets. Mince pies were never explicitly banned, but the Puritans disapproved of indulgent feasting, so best stick to something simple like stewed duck and mustard pickle.
  2. No pantomime. The Puritans banned all theatrical performances in 1642 for lascivious mirth and levity. Restoration theatre, following Charles II’s coronation in 1660, did its best to prove them right.
  3. But you can go shopping. Keeping shops open was a visible sign of normality, so Parliament insisted that shops must stay open on Christmas Day. You’ll have to limit your Christmas day shopping to the internet, where you won’t run into a crowd of rioters with Royalist sympathies.
  4. No carols. Singing irreligious seasonal songs was prohibited. At least this year you can sing outdoors. In 1656, that might have got you arrested.
  5. Worry about the Plague. Though 1656 was a good plague year compared to 1636, when 1 in 14 Londoners died, or 1665, which killed 1 in 6, Bubonic Plague never went away completely. During outbreaks, infected households were padlocked into their homes for 40 days, with a red cross and ‘Lord have Mercy’ painted on the outside.
  6. Drink coffee. The first coffee houses in England opened in 1652, in Oxford and then London, and the coffee house rapidly became an important meeting place for commercial, political and social meeting. Depending on your tier, you may have to drink your coffee sitting at either end of a park bench, but you can still talk politics and gossip.
  7. Worry about Europe. The Treaty of Brussels, signed in April 1656, committed Spain, already at war with England, to restoring Charles II to the English throne. Unlike today’s Brexit wrangling, the Anglo-Spanish War involved a lot of blockading ports, sinking ships and seizing islands in the Caribbean. There, you feel better about the lorry parks in Kent already.
  8. Post your cards and parcels at the last minute. Oliver Cromwell gave control of the post office to John Thurloe in 1655, and by 1656 a letter from London could reach Winchester in a day. Thurloe was also Spymaster General, so he might read your letter before it arrived, making it about as private as social media today.
  9. Complain that we’re being ruled by arbitrary regulations coming straight from Government. Major-Generals with extensive powers, backed by militias and answerable only to Whitehall, ran the country in 1656. The last debate in Parliament on Christmas Day was a call to limit their powers, in favour of more local rule. Their regime came to an end the following year.
  10. Get a dog. The pug was introduced to Britain by Dutch traders, probably around 1656 in an interlude between Anglo-Dutch wars. And walking a dog will help you burn off the calories from the stewed duck.

Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.