The Cultural Politics of Christmas Carols in Puritan England
During the period of England's Civil Wars and the ensuing Interregnum, Christmas, and other traditional holidays were banned by Parliament. Of all the ordinances that Parliament passed to change England into a "Godly" country, this was the most inflammatory. The social ramifications were manifold and popular resistance to this ordinance was immediate and sustained; though public dissent, under the Treason Act, could be punishable by death. Thus the safest outlets for voicing discontent were private and anonymous writing, usually in the forms of poetry, tracts, and music. My discovery of some hitherto unknown sources together with a reassessment of the whole corpus of mid-seventeenth century Christmas literature has revealed that royalist sympathizers capitalized on this situation, joining the verbal fray with texts that equated Father Christmas and his victorious return with King Charles, thus presaging the restoration of the monarchy. Christmas music from this period often echoes the political rhetoric of this literature. Although literary scholars, such as Hyder Rollins have recognized the political relevance of some cavalier texts, the political significance of Christmas carols have largely been overlooked. I offer several previously unexplored examples of such politicized carols of this period, from overtly anti-Puritan pieces such as "Beat Up a Drum" where Father Christmas goes into open combat with Old Man Winter, to the more subtle, traditional works found in Francis Coles's 1642 collection «Christmas Carols». Representative of the latter is "All hayle to the dayes". Despite its seeming innocence, its approbation of dancing, drinking, and mumming violated Parliamentary order and its refrain "drive the cold winter away" could be understood as a metaphorical rallying cry to incite popular revolt against Parliament and bring about a return of Merry old England.
Keywords: Christmas Carols, Cultural politics and resistance, Music as social code, Music in the English Civil War
Prof. Stacey Jocoy Houck
Visiting Assistant Professor, School of Music Musicology, Texas Tech University