investigates the history behind the myth
I think it’s a fair to say that Oliver Cromwell (1599-1688) was not Ireland’s favourite tourist. Investigating his less murderous adventures, it all gets just that bit worse.
Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653-58), when Oliver wasn’t terminating dynasties and casually slaughtering the innocent — he was a merciless kill-joy on the culinary front too.
Oliver Cromwell, it is said, suppressed the eating of both cake and mince pies at Christmas time.
He not only proscribed their consumption but put a legislative boot on it, railing against dangerous mid-winter gluttony. Puritan — it’s in the name. Christmas was not Christmas — it was Christ-tide with the word “mass” surgically extracted on the point of a dagger. Charming.
I’ve always wondered about Cromwell and his lieutenants in those campaigns in Ireland.
Visit any ragged old castle and cattle grazed battle-ground across the country, it seems (according to the OPW information boards) that OC had the preternatural ability to beam (cannons locked and loaded), to every corner of the island like a velvet-breeched Star Trek character.
Cromwell stayed here, Cromwell demolished that. He was here in person for just nine months.
The idea of mince pies being knocked by an extended English pike from the fingers of the revolting Irish peasants and old Gaelic royalty — painful stuff.
Despite the myth, and though I would love to pin it on the Protector, Christmas was not banned outright here or in the rest of the Commonwealth during the time of Cromwell headiest powers, it was already against Puritan law. He just upheld existing practice.
An ordinance in 1644 abolished the holy feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. Christmas was confirmed as being officially over, by special ordinance in 1647 by the Long Parliament.
Fasting, normally practised on Christmas Eve, was now the norm for the entire period of the formerly happy 12 days.
In Oliver’s time in charge, you were not expected to be caught frolicking the mucky streets with a slice of cake in one hand and a pint of ale in the other. Singing a carol could lead you straight to the stocks to be belted with gifts of rotting vegetables by resentful neighbours.
Now try making merry — you traitor! It wasn’t the four-year religious genocide being perpetrated in Ireland — but it stung.
In England and Ireland, if you could afford the ingredients, the Christmas cake had escaped to 12th night.
Despite the Lord Protector’s mingy attitudes, as long as you and yours were not seen to be living it up on the great day, feasting of sorts did continue around January 5.
A rich fruit cake gleaned from the recipe and remaining ingredients from making the fig pudding was divided and enjoyed.
That almond marzipan we all enjoy now (icing was a later addition) was regarded by the government as the 17th-century highway to hell. Almond paste, so yielding, so perfectly synthesised with raisins and spice— simply indulgent.
Mince pies? Mouthfuls of sin — just writing that up, of course I want one now smothered in boozy butter. The connection of the cake and the Catholic faith deeply disturbed the religious miserables. It said everything about their dread of “sensual delight”.
There was in the minds of the Puritans an unsettling level of ritual to the sweet cakes. Spices were said to represent the Wise Men visiting Jesus in Bethlehem.
These old ways, riddled with carnal, pagan joy, were not the ways of the Puritans new world of scripture-centred prayer and contemplation. Cromwell was also obsessive about the material waste created during the festivities of holy days — a bit “woke” by today’s standards? No, he was just a dark-hearted monster.
Obedience was expected. Unseemly celebration of the period was to be played down and shopkeepers were expected to keep their stores open over December 25.
Even by today’s standards when every petrol station shuts up, this seems outrageous and wrong.
The authorities did not want to see ordinary folk falling around in the streets and hitting them in their pint pots and store cupboards was the first point of attack.
Brave, ordinary folk struck back. “Pudding Wars” (really pro-Christmas riots) are recorded in Canterbury, Norwich and Ipswich, as locals railed against the seizure of their mid-winter partying in plum porridge, cakes and pie.
If you want to raise a glass to anyone at Christmas as your teeth separate a mince pie and you cleave the cake into slabs – think of Charles II, a truly visionary good-time lad of the Early Modern Era.
In 1660, Charles, the Merry Monarch, restored the kingship, taking, officially succeeding his dead father. Along with the general atmosphere of national relief and religious tolerance he tried to promote, the rules put in place around the 12 days of Christmas were abolished and it was re-established as a religious and secular feast.
It’s strange, as the banning of the consumption of mince pies on Christmas Day in Britain remains one of those urban legends swirling around the internet. So, if you’re crashing in Cumberland or lounging in London for the holidays, don’t fear — feast.