December: a period that turns the world upside down
DECEMBER is rarely the time for big demonstrations. The weather is bad and the pressures of a commercial festival are considerable, all the more so in another year with the worries of Covid.
Yet traditionally Christmas and New Years are times of revolt. When most were working the land, there was not much to do during the few hours of daylight at this time of year. There was, however, plenty of time for festivities and revolt.
It was the time of the election of the lords of disorder (they were mainly men although in France women also took the role).
Often they were officially approved jesters who turned the world upside down, but only in a dramatic sense. This was not always the case, however.
In the 1640s, Parliament attempted to ban Christmas – a law of June 10, 1647 prohibited its celebration.
It was not entirely successful, but there were reasons for the ban. Christmas was associated with Catholicism and, indeed, with the “old” ruling orders, while the parliamentary majority now represented the Puritan ascendant who disliked the traditions and ideas of the Catholic Church.
The Puritans also feared, on an official level and certainly among local “activists”, that Christmas was a time of dissolute behavior which they saw as ungodly.
Parliament certainly did not succeed entirely in banning Christmas activities, in part because the less well off in society liked to mark the occasion, if and where they could, with their lives being quite hard at other times, and also because the celebration was associated with the royalist cause and, in the 1650s, a symbol of attempts to overthrow the republic.
On Christmas 1647 a number of church ministers were jailed for attempting to mark the occasion and at the grassroots there were a number of riots in defense of the day’s celebration.
Mark Stoyle wrote in History Today about some of those that have been recorded. For example, on December 25, 1647, there was unrest in Bury, while pro-Christmas riots also took place in Norwich and Ipswich.
During the Ipswich riot, a protester named ‘Noel’ was reportedly killed – a death which could be seen as symbolic of how Parliament ‘killed’ Noel himself.
In London, a crowd of apprentices gathered at Cornhill on Christmas Day, and there “in spite of authority they planted holly and ivy” on the pinnacles of the public water pipe.
When the mayor sent officers “to shoot these gawds”, the apprentices resisted them, forcing the mayor to rush to the scene with a group of soldiers and break up the demonstration by force.
The biggest unrest of all took place in Canterbury, where a mob of protesters first destroyed the shops that had been opened on Christmas Day, then took control of the entire city.
As with the Gordon Riots in London of the 1780s, we must be careful in applying modern labels of “reactionary” or “progressive” to such events.
They may have been influenced by royalism, and therefore in the context of the counterrevolutionary of the 1640s, but once they were under way, they became a force that could challenge the existing order, no matter what. ‘be responsible.
The traditions of world-overthrowing and the mess lords have a much longer origin. One of the real traditions of charivari or rough music – loud nightly protests outside the homes of the wealthy – was that it focused on scandals and unpopular authority figures. Boris Johnson’s Christmas parties seem like a great place to start.
Keith Flett is a socialist historian.