When people ask me where I’m from, I usually just say Cambridge, a city know the world over for its university, long history, and beautiful English charm.
Sadly, however, the sleepy towns in the rest of Cambridgeshire enjoy far less renown. With the exception of Ely and it’s cathedral, there’s not many who could name anything or anywhere in Cambridgeshire aside from Cambridge itself.
Yet, the county has been home to many famous faces throughout history. My own constituency of Huntingdonshire, for instance, has been the home of the likes of former Prime Minister John Major, John Bellingham (the only man to ever assassinate a British PM), and, perhaps most famous, Oliver Cromwell, a military leader during the English Civil War and eventual Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Since then, Cromwell’s legacy has been somewhat controversial. As a result of his brutal military campaigns in Ireland, he’s since garnered a reputation akin to that of a genocidal dictator. The famous (if not fully true) story of Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern refusing a meeting with British foreign secretary Robin Cook until he took down his portrait of the “Murdering Bastard” demonstrates the Great Protector’s muddied legacy.
In Britain, too, his legacy isn’t particularly positive. One aspect of Cromwell’s personality and reign that has become particularly famous was his rampant puritanism. His conviction to puritan Christianity was so strong that, during his time as Protector of the Commonwealth, he famously banned Christmas.
During the time of the Commonwealth, traditional Christmas celebrations were deemed a sacrilegious affront to God. The puritan government saw Christmas as a day of the Lord, to be spent in quiet meditation and worship. The traditional celebrations of indulgence in food and drink, to Cromwell and his cronies, were all a little too Catholic.
Thus, he passed a law on the 10th of June 1647 banning Christmas celebrations. Businesses were told to keep their normal opening hours. Any food which the army suspected may be used for a festive feast would be confiscated. And you’d better have hoped that the law didn’t catch you singing Twelve Days of Christmas.
As much as I bang-on about paternalism and the nanny state, even I have to admit I’m happy to live in a time where I can celebrate objectively the best holiday of the year freely. Today, the biggest threat to Christmas is an oversensitive minority of people reading too much into the lyrics of Baby it’s Cold Outside. Seems trivial compared to the punishment for singing a carol in Cromwell’s Britain.
Yet, just like people today won’t let others dictate what they listen to at Christmas, the people of the Commonwealth didn’t exactly lay down and take Cromwell’s ban on fun easily. On Christmas Day, 1647, riots erupted across Britain, setting up decorations, singing carols, and smashing the stores that had remained open.
Following Cromwell’s death and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy, Christmas was finally ‘legalised’ again. But the fact that so many resisted the Draconian attempts to ban the festivities serves as a reminder of how our ancestors fought to preserve their freedoms to eat, drink and be merry, an attitude we could use more of today.
So, while you’re watching drinking champagne, eating Quality Street and watching A Muppets Christmas Carol, Love Actually and/or Die Hard (the Holy Trinity of Christmas movies), be thankful you can do it without a puritan despot breathing down your neck. Merry Christmas!