The last time they banned Christmas

The last time they banned Christmas

How was Christmas celebrated? Since medieval times, 25 December had been a high holy day, marked by special church services, and followed by twelve days of festivities lasting until 5 January, Twelfth Night. During this period there were more services, along with feasts, plentiful drinking, games, plays and the singing of carols. Businesses shut up shop or kept shorter hours. Wassailers went from house to house offering drink in exchange for gifts. It was a period of carnival-style inversion, when normal rules did not apply. Lords of Misrule were appointed to supervise festivities. Homes and other buildings were decorated with holly, ivy and bay. Seasonal foods included roast beef, goose and turkey, along with mincemeat pies (with real meat and dried fruit) and plum pudding. Special Christmas ales were brewed.

And what did the Puritans have against it? Zealous Protestants saw all the great festivals such as Easter and Whitsun, and the saints’ days, as an unwelcome hangover from Catholicism. Scripture did not name any holiday except the Sabbath; so, they argued, all such holidays were “Popish”, idolatrous and profane. Christmas “occupied a special place in the ideological religious warfare of Reformation Europe”, writes the historian Prof Bruce Daniels. Puritans felt it was essentially a pagan ritual co-opted from the Roman Saturnalia: William Prynne complained of the “drinking, roaring, healthing [toasting], dicing, carding, dancing, masques and stage-plays” that went on. They wanted it observed instead as “Christ-tide”, a time of fasting and quiet contemplation. And during the Civil War, under pressure from their Presbyterian allies in Scotland, the Puritan-led Long Parliament committed to reforming the ecclesiastical calendar.

When was it banned? In 1643, Parliament sat on Christmas Day as if it were a normal day, having just passed an ordinance ordering people to observe it with “solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending to a memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”. In 1647, having triumphed in the first phase of the Civil War and placed Charles I in custody, Parliament passed a new ordinance confirming the abolition of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and making observance of these festivals an offence. It is often said that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas, but actually he was not personally responsible, though as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658 he continued to proscribe it.

What was the reaction to this? So strong was the popular attachment to the festival that there was open defiance and even violence. From 1647, there were pro-Christmas riots in Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Norwich – where 40 people were killed in March 1648. In London, crowds of apprentices gathered at Cornhill and decked public fountains with holly and ivy. The “plum pudding riots” in Canterbury saw open shops vandalised and a game of football turn into a mass brawl. Royalist propagandists had long identified the celebration of Christmas with the good old days and the cause of King and Church. “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster,” wrote the royalist John Taylor in his pamphlet The Complaint of Christmas. And in Kent, the Christmas riots became a major insurrection. In 1647 and 1648, says Prof Martyn Bennett, “parties led to riots, these riots led to rebellions which, in turn, caused the Second Civil War that summer. King Charles was put on trial after his defeat in the war and was executed. This resulted in a revolution and Britain and Ireland became a republic – all because of Christmas.”

How effective was the ban? After Parliament’s victory in the Second Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649, protests and riots in favour of Christmas died out. It ceased to be celebrated in the majority of churches. However, there is plenty of evidence that clandestine services were held and local Christmas traditions were kept up. In 1650, the Council of State complained of the “very wilful and strict observation of the day” in London and Middlesex by shopkeepers who refused to open their businesses. In 1652, a “terrible Remonstrance against Christmas Day” was presented to Parliament in 1652, inveighing against the “Anti-Christ’s Masse, and those Masse-Mongers and Papists who observe it”. The Essex vicar Ralph Josselin’s diaries record that holly, ivy and bay were put up behind closed doors, and feasts held in private.

When did Christmas return? When Charles II returned to power in 1660, the “Merry Monarch” repealed the anti-Christmas laws, along with most legislation from the interregnum. Old customs were revived, and Christmas was celebrated as both a religious and social event, though in a more restrained form. Samuel Pepys’s diaries show him attending church at least once on Christmas Day throughout the 1660s, but also going to the office in the afternoons. In 1662, he records eating “a mess of brave plum porridge and a roasted pullet” and sending “for a mince-pie abroad” as his wife was too ill to bake one.

So the crusade failed? As a national campaign, yes. “Of all the Parliamentarian measures there is perhaps none which more completely sank without trace than the attempt to abolish Christmas,” wrote the historian Conrad Russell. However, there are some Protestant groups that even now don’t celebrate it, such as the Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And anti-Christmas feeling survived for a long time in New England. “The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1856. Christmas Day only became a US federal holiday in 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.