Banning Christmas

puritans-690x360It was inevitable that the Puritans would come up somewhere in my festive posts. Unfortunately for the Christmas loving inhabitants of Parliamentarian England the holy day was deemed to smack of popery. Admittedly there was rather a lot of drinking, dancing and general merriment and that wasn’t a good thing on account of the fact that it encouraged folk towards sinfulness.  Puritans felt that really and truly that rather than games, morris dancing, Yule logs and eating too much that the population should aim for a more mediative approach to the day involving fasting and prayer or just going about their business as usual. In January 1645 the Directory of Public Worship stated that ‘Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued’.


In June 1647, following Parliamentary victories, an ordinance banned Christmas, Easter and Whitsun.  The same ruling decreed that the second Tuesday of every month should be declared a holiday for students, servants and apprentices.  Unfortunately not everyone, particularly the students and apprentices,  were terribly keen on the idea.  Parliament was then required to spend rather a lot of time working out how to prevent Londoners from celebrating Christmas. It ordered that shops should remain open as usual, church services were observed – priests offering up a Christmas Sermon found themselves at the end of an unfestive arrest warrant.

In Ely a puritan minister tried to keep a low profile but his traditionally-minded parishioners informed him that if he didn’t preach a sermon they’d get someone else to do the job so the priest agreed for the sake of peace and quiet.


The people of Canterbury found themselves at loggerheads with the authorities that year as well. Eating mince pies was declared to be illegal and shops were to be kept open.  The mayor took it upon himself to enforce the rules that shops should open as usual.  Dissatisfaction was expressed through the so-called Plum Pudding Riots which began with a shopkeeper being put in the stocks for refusing to open his shop. A game of football ensued through the streets of Canterbury that saw several puritan windows broken and the mayor was forced into hiding whilst his home was looted…nothing like a spot of goodwill in December. It was only when a band of Parliamentarian soldiers were dispatched to Canterbury in January 1648 that order was restored but by that time the people of Kent were up in arms against Parliament.


The unrest wasn’t just confined to Kent the good burghers of Norwich and Ipswich weren’t particularly happy about the disappearance of Christmas either, although in Ipswich the ringleaders of the unrest didn’t make it much beyond Boxing Day before they were rounded up.  In London apprentices took up flower arranging – holly and ivy stuck on the water conduits at Cornhill – which didn’t go down very well with the authorities.

Needless to say that in addition to Christmas services and mince pies, carol singing had been also been banned by that point (just as well there weren’t shops playing carols from October onwards in the seventeenth century or the ban might have proved rather more popular.)

It was only with Cromwell’s death and the restoration of Charles II that Christmas was allowed back into the calendar.

Benn. Aphra Behn. Neither shaken nor stirred.

article-1277341-09581352000005DC-485_634x528Aphra Johnson is one of England’s foremost literary ladies. She wrote plays and poems and even a book on botany but I first heard of her because she was an early novelist and spent a grim week wading through her novel Oroonoko – though to be fair Eighteenth Century Studies was by far the grimmest of the courses I followed many moons ago at university and I didn’t know the extent that she was drawing on her experiences and coming to think of it she had nothing to do with the eighteenth century!

Her own life story reads like an adventure novel. She was born near Canterbury in 1640 at Wye. Some accounts identify her father as a barber from Canterbury others identify her father as John Amis – there being a world of difference in the status of the two men.

What we can be sure of is that at that time that area was full of Huguenot refugees and Dutch emigrees. The Huguenots were famously silk weavers but the Dutch left a legacy of linen thread making – meaning that the fields of Kent weren’t necessarily full of hops but flax.
At some point Aphra travelled to Dutch Guiana or Surinam as it was then known in the company of her parents- her father had been made lieutenant-general of the colony but he died en route.

During the two years she was in Surinam, Aphra became friends with William Scot, the son of a convicted and executed regicide. It is possible that they became lovers but the evidence is sketchy.

When she returned to London in approximately 1664 she married a Dutch- or possibly German- merchant – or possibly sea captain- who seems to have promptly died of the plague leaving her somewhat financially challenged. It has also been suggested that for some reason Johan Behn may well have been a product of her imagination as no evidence of him can readily be found.

Fortunately her mother had a friend who was a groom of the king’s bedchamber called Sir Thomas Killigrew. He managed to get her an introduction at court. The next thing you know Aphra found herself working as a spy with Killigrew as her handler in Flanders and the Netherlands during the Anglo-Dutch wars (1652- 74). In part she was selected for the role because a certain William Scot was now in the Low Countries. One of Aphra’s jobs was to convince him to support Charles II – the man who’d signed the death warrant for his father. She was to offer him a pardon which proved lamentably slow in its arrival.

Before she returned home Aphra warned her London spymasters that the Dutch were planning an attack up the Thames. Her warnings were ignored and the fleet burned on the Medway raid that saw the flagship the Royal Charles captured.

Aphra should have checked Charles II’s record for paying his staff. Back in London, where she’d managed to miss the Great Fire, she found herself in debtors’ prison and never did get paid for her work. In order to extract herself from this rather unpleasant situation she picked up her quill and started writing. She became England’s leading female writer and earned a place in Westminster Abbey. The truth, is as they say, stranger than fiction.