The Cancellation of Christmas

Philippa Carter (@extispicium)

In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’

to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound. This being done with admiration to the beholders, after some short pause, fire the train of the Castle, that the pieces all of one side may go off; then fire the trains of one side of the Ship as in a Battle;… All dangers being seemed over, by this time you may suppose they will desire to see what is in the pies; where lifting first the lid off one pie, out skips some Frogs, which makes the Ladies to skip and shreek; next after the other pie, whence comes out the Birds; who by a natural instinct flying at the light, will put out the candles: so that what with the flying Birds and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company: at length the candles are lighted, and a Banquet brought in, the musick sounds, and every one with much delight and content rehearses their actions in the former passages.[1]

If May was pulling out all the stops, he had his reasons. He was determined to return his guests to the ‘golden dayes wherein were practised the Triumphs and Trophies of Cookery’ … ‘before good House-keeping had left England, and the Sword really acted that which was only counterfeited in such honest and laudable Exercises as these’.

Robert May’s book was published in 1660: in May that year, the exiled Charles II had been restored to the throne. At this point, England had been a republic for eleven years. May’s barbed comment about the damage wrought by the ‘Sword’ was aimed not at the new king, but at the preceding republican regime. Its leaders had done something never attempted before or since: they had cancelled Christmas.

The most fervent of England’s protestants (often referred to as ‘puritans’) had long harboured misgivings about the holiday.[2] There was no mention of it in the Bible. Worse, the puritan rector Thomas Mocket suspected that it was a repackaged version of the pagan winter feast of Saturnalia.[3] If the early Christians had been hoping to win over their ancient Roman neighbours, the result had been to bring

all the heathenish customs and pagan rites and ceremonies that the idolatrous heathens used, [such] as riotous drinking, health drinking, gluttony, luxury, wantonness, dancing, dicing, stage-plays, interludes, masks, mummeries, with all other pagan sports and profane practices into the Church of God.[4]

Moderate churchmen leapt to defend the godly celebration of Christ’s nativity. This argument had rumbled on since about 1560, but it came to a head with the outbreak of civil war in 1642. The country was now split between royalists and parliamentarians, and longstanding religious divisions like this one hardened along the new party lines. Parliament was aligned with the puritan cause, and soon after gaining power, it moved to suppress Christmas. In 1643, it ordered that a countrywide fast be kept on the 25th December. Four years later, several churchwardens were arrested for allowing services to be held on the day.[5] Christmas was being steadily scored off the calendar.

Its defendants did not give up easily. Bitter anti-puritan lampoons streamed from the pens of royalist pamphleteers. In John Taylor’s A Vindication of Christmas (1652), Father Christmas visits England on the ‘holy day’ to find its miserable inhabitants at their weekday toil. This was not just a war of words. Christmas Day riots broke out in London, Canterbury, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds throughout the 1640s. Crowds defied Parliament by putting up decorations, demanding church services, and forcing shopkeepers to close their shops. Many celebrated behind closed doors, or simply continued to take the day off. [6]

Gradually – on the surface, at least – the measures introduced by Parliament did take hold.[7] But they took very little undoing. With the king’s restoration in 1660 came the reinstitution of Christmas; both were met with widespread elation.[8] Christmas was back to stay, and England’s master pastry chef planned to celebrate in style.


Further reading:

Bernard Capp, England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and its Enemies in the Interregnum, 1649 – 1660 (Oxford, 2012)

Christopher Durstan, ‘Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas 1642-60’, History Today 35 (1985), 7-14.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Nothaft, ‘From Sukkot to Saturnalia: The Attack on Christmas in Sixteenth-Century Chronological Scholarship’, Journal of the History of Ideas 72:4 (2011), 503-522.

Mark Stoyle, ‘No Christmas under Cromwell? The Puritan assault on Christmas during the 1640s and 1650s’, History Extra, 20 December 2011. Accessed 21 November 2019,


[1] Robert May, The accomplisht cook, or The art and mystery of cookery (London, 1660), 8-9 (unpaginated).

[2] Christopher Durstan, ‘Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas 1642-60’, History Today 35 (1985), 8.

[3] Durstan, ‘Lords of Misrule’, 10.

[4] Thomas Mocket, Christmas, The Christians grand feast (London, 1651), 8-9.

[5] Durstan, ‘Lords of Misrule’, 8-9.

[6] Mark Stoyle, ‘No Christmas under Cromwell?’; Durstan, ‘Lords of Misrule’, 14.

[7] Stoyle, ‘No Christmas under Cromwell?’.

[8] Durstan, ‘Lords of Misrule’, 14.


Faux pigeon pie, Image © A Table for Two.

John Taylor, frontispiece to The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652). EEBO.

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