Christmas MicroHistory 6: Riots

Monday, December 21st, 2020

This is the SIXTH of our special Christmas-themed micro-histories in which we will embrace the task of demonstrating how an unexpected subject not only has a history but is massively important and interesting – in just 15 minutes! We will start with a shared example and then have just five minutes each to make a case for an interesting history on that very unexpected subject. Contributions will be rigorously timed and you – dear listeners – will get to vote on SM on what YOU think was the most interesting fact you heard today.

Today’s topic is RIOTS – nothing quite says Christmas like riots! Riots are also of course all about!Christmas has often been about violence and rioting as much as it has sharing and caring. It is well known that Oliver Cromwell and puritans sought to abolish Christmas, which they viewed as a ‘Popish superstition’. One ordinance was passed by Parliament in June 1647 which threatened with punishment anyone who celebrated this festival. This ban did not go down well in all quarters, and in December 1647 many of the citizens of Canterbury defied it, taking to the streets to riot. The pamphlet Canterbury’s Christmas: Or A True Relation of the Insurrection in Canterbury on Christmas Last describes how shops that stayed open on this holy day were ransacked, the mayor, aldermen and constables attacked, and the sheriff knocked down, his head ‘fearfully broke, it was gods mercy his brains were not beat out’. In another example, this one in America in 1776 at the start of the American Revolutionary War, the rebel militia guarding the maritime route to Canada Fort Ticonderoga was a simmering pot of class and cultural rivalry exacerbated by cold and boredom. The extra alcohol of Christmas day saw it erupt into shocking violence as the soldiers turned on each other like hungry dogs. A recently-discovered personal account noted how Pennsylvania soldiers ‘armed with guns, bayonets and swords, [who] by force entered the tents and huts of [Massachusetts] officers and soldiers, dragging many out of doors naked and wounding them, robbing and plundering.’ Riots are also all about Mrs Thatcher (milk snatcher) and the infamous Poll Tax Riots of 1990, and of course they’re also all about British rule in India, resentment, methods of protest and resistance, loyalty and servitude.

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