Thanks to the Victorians, we have a rose-tinted view of Christmas Past. But was it really like that? A search of the archives reveals lechery, mayhem – and Canterbury's Plum Pudding Riots

The Plum Pudding riots: Canterbury’s winter of discontent

In 1644, a group of hard-line Puritans gained control of Parliament. The result? Christmas – as we know it – disappeared. This marked a reaction against the traditional 12 days of Christmas – a prolonged period of merriment and revelry which began on Christmas Day and which was characterised by rich food, dancing and excess.

The Puritans regarded these celebrations as sinful – ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’ – and the traditional decorations of holly, ivy, rosemary and bays as pagan. Christmas Day was initially turned into a day of fasting and repentance and, in June 1647, it was abolished altogether.

The attitude of these extremist Puritans was typified by one ‘Praise-God Barebone’, a leather-seller in London’s Fetter Lane, who is described by historian Walter Thornbury as “one of those gloomy religionists who looked on surplices, plum-porridge, theatres, dances, Christmas pudding, and homicide as equally detestable, and did his best to shut out all sunshine from that long, rainy, stormy day that is called life”.

So extreme was the Puritan intolerance of Christmas that special constables were appointed to search ovens on Christmas Day and confiscate any food being prepared for the festival!

This went down badly with the people of Kent who – like many of their compatriots – were addicted to the festive season. The matter came to a head in Canterbury resulting in what became known as the ‘Plum Pudding Riots’.

At this time, the city had a particularly severe – and humourless – Puritan as mayor. He encouraged a mob to “insult and molest” church-goers on Christmas Day. This led to an unseemly brawl which – although quietened by the intercession of three leading citizens – resulted in armed forces being sent in to attack the city. The city gates were torn down and burned, parts of the wall were destroyed and many people – including the peace-makers – were sent to prison.

So much for peace and goodwill!

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey also reveal a less salubrious parallel between Christmas Past and Present. It seems that, whatever the age, Christmas offers a unique opportunity for thieves to fill their own stockings.

The Proceedings record the case of a 17th century husband and wife, Elizabeth and William Skale who, having moved into lodgings just before Christmas, obligingly relieved their landlord of some prized possessions a few days later. Their haul included: “a Looking glass, value 14 s. a Set of Curtains 20 s., a Blanket, a Pewter Tankard, and divers other small Household Goods”.

They were caught six weeks later. Although Elizabeth was acquitted, the time for festive leniency was well and truly over, the Court finding William guilty “of Felony to the value of 10 d.” and satisfying the traditional need for punitive justice by sentencing him to a good whipping.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Christmas celebrations were duly reinstated – no doubt to the satisfaction of the citizens of Canterbury.

Once again, Church-going became part of the festive calendar. However, passages from the diary of Samuel Pepys suggest that his attendance at church was more an occasion for ogling the ladies than seeking redemption.

During Advent 1665, Pepys noted with evident pleasure that, in church, he sat “very near my fat brown beauty of our Parish, the rich merchant’s lady”.

His entry for Christmas Day itself reveals an even deeper streak of cynicism. A wedding was held during the Christmas service and, having noted the young couple’s apparent happiness, Pepys remarks: “Strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition”.

Perhaps the Puritans had a point after all!

 

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