175 years ago this month Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol was first published – it sold out by Christmas Eve! We are celebrating the anniversary in Special Collections by holding a drop in on the anniversary itself, 19 December (12 noon – 2pm), where you can encounter Dickens’ works for yourself. This is free to attend and open to all.
“superstitious pies and porridge, ransacking pots, robbing ovens, and stripping spits”
You will be able to see an account by Charles Dickens of the time when Christmas was banned in England. As well as writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens published articles on the history of Christmas in England and made observations on the traditional ways in which Christmas was celebrated around the world. He published these in All The Year Round, a literary magazine founded and owned by Dickens. In Special Collections we hold every edition published between 1869 and 1979 (part of our Rare books and periodicals collection).
The December 1870 edition of All The Year Round included a piece on the prohibition of the celebration of Christmas in the 17th century and the methods by which the Puritans attempted to enforce this ban. During the first half of the 17th century England was ruled by a Puritan parliament, headed by Oliver Cromwell, who put huge amounts of time and effort into reforming the moral and spiritual character of the country. The festival of Christmas came into their firing line as it was not seen as a Christian or religious festival for two main reasons
- it was a time of feasting, drinking and extravagance, whilst the Puritans advocated fasting and sobriety
- it was a Catholic festival, and Catholicism was viewed as an heretical strain of Christianity by the Puritans. In 1642 the Puritan parliament abolished Christmas and ordered that it should instead be “observed as a day of fasting and of humiliation”. (Dickens, All the Year Round Vol. 5, December 1870 p. 101).
“Holly, ivy, mistletoe, bay and rosemary were accounted branches of superstition. To roast a sirloin of beef, to touch a collar of brawn, to bake a pie, to put a plum in a pottage-pot, to burn a big candle, or to lay one log more upon the fire for Christmas’ sake was enough to make a man be suspected and taken for a Christian and punished accordingly.”
Dickens describes the measures the Puritans would take to enforce this ban and what actions they considered as breaching their legislation. He writes that on Christmas Day officials would search the entire city of London, looking for “superstitious pies and porridge, ransacking pots, robbing ovens and stripping spits” (ibid.), believing that these things were wicked and against Christianity. Religious observance was equally unacceptable and all churches were ordered to close over Christmas, with anyone who tried to preach or give a sermon served with an arrest warrant.
Despite all this, the people of England found means to celebrate and make merry, one way or the other. It might be a small personal rebellion, such as making a Christmas pudding or singing a carol. Sometimes there were larger, public, rebellions. Riots would break out, mobs would form and attack the officials working for the Puritan parliament. Dickens describes an incident in 1647 involving forbidden festive decorations and how they were fiercely fought for by the people in the local area. He tells us that Cornhill conduit had been dressed in evergreens, holly and ivy, rosemary and bay were set on top of the tall building. The city marshall and his men were set to pull down the decorations, but the decorated building was defended by local lads, who attacked the marshall and caused his men to flee for their lives. Although some men were seized and sent to prison for the day, there was still a feeling of triumph as the Christmas decorations remained upon the building. (Dickens, All the Year Round Vol 5, December 1870 p. 101).
Also on display will be illustrations of Christmas festivities from 1870s England:
to 1950s America:
and you can discover when the Christmas tree first came to England.