Much like their more famous ‘war on Christmas’, the Puritans of the early 17th Century also had Easter in their sights.
It has been said that the transformation of Easter into a secular festival second only to Christmas has accelerated in recent years. With the long weekend affording many families the chance to come together, commerce has not been slow in sensing an opportunity to capitalise and the profusion of Easter-related paraphernalia – gifts, cards, and confections – only seems to grow. “Easter”, one commentator wryly noted, “is the new Christmas”.
This would have been no surprise in late medieval England, where Easter outranked Christmas as the key festival of the Christian year and was surrounded by a schedule of feast days, public events, and rituals.
But the English Reformation saw much of the Roman Catholic ceremony associated with Easter striped away, in favour of the more austere – and, to the Puritan mind, more fitting – fasting, contemplation, and prayer.
Historian Ronald Hutton traces the downgrading of Easter to the lead-up to the English Reformation led by its chief architect, Archbishop Sir Thomas Cranmer, who energetically pursued a policy of destruction of many of the medieval rituals associated with the festival, such as the dressing of special ‘Easter sepulchres’ – an arched recess generally in a church’s chancel which, from Good Friday to Easter day, would have had a crucifix and sacred elements placed within it – a long standing English tradition that was effectively snuffed out as early as 1548.
As the effects of the break with Rome continued to spread throughout the kingdom, so too did the efforts to transform Easter from a time of celebration akin to the Twelve Days of Christmas into a strict religious affair. As the 17th Century dawned, Puritans mostly objected to what they saw as the immoral behaviour and Popish ceremony that surrounded these ‘festival days’, from mid-fast feasting, to a special ‘Easter-ale’ given to the labourers in Northamptonshire, and even a demand for free victuals in 1623 in Storrington, Sussex: “our parishioners claim of our parson by ancient custom to have bread and cheese and a barrel of beer in the church on Easter day immediately after evening prayer; which custom in regard of the place and day our parson admonished them to be unlawful, yet delivered the accustomed on Easter Monday; and most of the parishioners had into the churchyard without our approbation or consent.” (quoted from The Post‑Reformation: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain by John Spurr)
Sunday was to be the only day of rest, and it was to be spent in prayer and quiet worship, not carousing and drinking. In the 1640s, along with their efforts against Christmas, they demanded a stricter observance of Sundays along with banning the ‘immoral’ celebration of Easter, Whitsun and saints’ days.
Easter itself posed a problem because of its anchoring to a Sunday in the calendar – it is always the first Sunday after the 14th day of the lunar month that falls on or after the vernal equinox on or around 21 March. Whereas Parliament could order churches closed and shops open on a normal weekday Christmas, they couldn’t do the same with a Sunday. In The Quest for Purity: Dynamics of Puritan Movements, Walter, E. a Van Beek says “Because Easter invariably fell on a Sunday, this was a problem for Puritan preachers who were consistent with their repudiation of of the traditional calendar. The usual solution was to preach a sermon that had no direct connection with Easter.”
As the First English Civil War reached its climax in 1645, The Long Parliament issued the Directory for the Public Worship of God, which replaced the hated Book of Common Prayer (which had helped spark the Civil Wars in the first place). It stated that the only holy day, according to biblical scripture, was the Lord’s Day and other ‘festival days’ were not to be continued. The diktat was widely ignored.
King Charles was quite keen on Easter and even when Parliament’s prisoner, tried to challenge its relegation. In the pamphlet “Certaine queries, proposed by the King, to the Lords and Commons Commisssioners from the Honourable Houses of Parliament, attending his Majesty at Holdenby, touching the celebration of the feast of Easter”, issued on 24 April 1647, he said:
“I desire to be resolved of this question why the new Reformers discharges the keeping of Easter? I conceive the celebration of this feast was instituted by the same authority which changed the Jewish Sabbath into the Lords Day or Sunday, for it will not be found in scripture where Saturday is discharged to be kept, or turned into the Sunday, wherefore it must be the Churches authority that changed the one and instituted the other; therefore my opinion is that those who will not keep this feast, may as well return to the observation of Saturday and refuse the weekely Sunday; when any bodie can shew me that herein I am in an error I shall not be ashamed to confesse and amend it.”
The reply, presented by Parliamentary commissioner Sir James Harrington, dismissed Charles’ argument, fired numerous ecclesiastical justifications back at him, and arrogantly stated that since God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh it follows that it is the Jews who were wrong and Christians correct, concluding “But for the observation of Easter to be an annuall festivall to Christians I finde nothing in the holy Scriptures.”. In a patronising postscript, the pamphlet ends by quoting Francis Waldack, the German Lutheran Prince-Bishop who brutally suppressed the Anabaptist revolt of Munster in 1534: “O Lord! What have we done that thou shouldst suffer us to stray thus? And in knowing times to be so strangely deluded?”
Moves to ban feast days prompted London apprentices to march in protest from Covent Garden to Westminster on 20 April 1647 and petition Parliament. Committed to their Puritan duty but distracted by their negotiations with the captive King and fearing further riots, Parliament only partially caved in and gave labourers a day off once a month in compensation: “all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month as they used to have from such festivals and holy days”.
In June of that year, Parliament formally passed legislation abolishing Christmas and other holidays:
“Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”
Parliament much preferred the population participate in monthly fasts, which everyone – by law and regardless of the season – was meant to abide by. It seems, based on Parliament’s increasing frustrated demands for adherence in the 1650s, that few did.
In 1657, the second Parliament of the Protectorate further legislated to stop the continued ‘profanation’ of the Lord’s Day and, as described in Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry Old England, it carefully defined the offence as “dancing, secular songs, music, wakes, revels, feasts, church ales, maypoles, `or any other sports and pastimes’. The act was to be read in every parish church by the minister on the first Sunday of each March. Anybody who published arguments against it was to be fined 4s or sent to the local House of Correction”.
Mimicking Christ’s actions at the Last Supper, Holy Communion has always been at the centre of the Easter ritual. But even that did not escape the period unscathed. The Puritans’ campaign against aspects of ‘Popish innovation’ re-introduced by Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud succeeded in many places with the breaking of alter rails, the reduction of alters, and celebrants taking communion at their seats. So successful was this pressure that – for some – even communion itself began to have the whiff of Popery. In The Post‑Reformation: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, Spurr details how the number of services featuring Holy Communion fell drastically over the 1640s and 1650s, and even those that took place would be poorly attended.
Hutton, however, cites the work of influential historian John Morrill to suggest that although occurrences of communion generally fell over the 1640s, in many parishes it remained key to marking Easter, even in the face of Puritan distaste:
“He was the first Stuart historian to make extensive use of churchwardens’ accounts, assembling a sample from 150 parishes in East Anglia and western England. He noted … that before 1643 the general pattern was for communions to be held upon great feasts such as Easter, Christmas, and Whitson. What surprised and impressed historians most was that 85 per cent of his parishes still did so in 1646, and 43 per cent still held an Easter communion in 1650. After this, the proportion rose, and did so still faster after 1657, until by Easter 1660 just over half were doing so.”
After the fall of the Puritan domination of English politics following the Restoration in 1660, the nationwide celebration of Christmas returned to normal. Easter, however, never truly recovered. Although Easter and the celebration of communion remained at the heart of the liturgical calendar, Cranmer had done his work – the rich tapestry of pre-Reformation ritual and festival was gone.
What remains – Palm Crosses, Hot Cross Buns, Easter Eggs, “Pancake Day” – is but a faint echo of what was one of the most important festivals of the year.