A world without Christmas may seem inconceivable, however Christmas wasn’t always the festive public holiday it is today. Its popularity has wax and waned over the centuries being celebrated to varying degrees in different places and periods. In England in the late medieval era it was first officially declared a public holiday by royal decree of 1448. However in 1645 it was banned when radical Protestants – Puritans among them Oliver Cromwell, came to power in England.
The origins of the canceling Christmas in 1645 lay in the increase in popularity and power of Puritanism in England through the late 16th and early 17th century. Puritans were radical Protestants believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. They found the comparatively meager 17th celebrations offensive because they saw Christmas as a human invention being used as an excuse to drink and celebrate. (Puritans saw Christmas as a human invention because the specific date of 25th of December is an arbitrary date chosen to coincide with the pre-existing pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The date is not mentioned in the bible)
They pointed to the pagan origins of the holiday (December the 25th was chosen to coincide with the pagan celebrations of winter solstice ) as evidence of the unholy nature of the celebrations. Their opposition was so vociferous that the Pilgrim fathers (puritan exiles from England) spent their first Christmas day in North America starting construction on a house to illustrate their contempt for what they saw as a sinful celebration.
Celebrations in the 17th century
After decades on the fringe of English society Puritanism became a major force in England through the early 17th century. They campaigned against what they saw as the decadent celebrations of Charles I and mainstream English Protestantism. Protests against the celebration of Christmas even saw one Puritan, William Prynne, mutilated for his opposition.
Christmas celebrations in the 17th century were a very timid affair when compared to today. Those who could afford it, celebrated with cakes, special dinners and attending seasonal plays but the celebrations would be unrecognisable when compared to the modern celebration of Christmas.
The Banning of Christmas
Towards the late 1630’s, politics in England became increasingly tense and relations between the Parliament and the King Charles I, grew increasingly strained. In 1642 the English civil war broke out which became a vicious conflict that parliament would eventually win and Charles I would lose all including his head. The parliamentary side was composed of several groups but the Puritans were the most cohesive and became the dominant group in the anti-royalist side through the 1640’s.
Although the war would rumble on for years, by 1644 Parliament and the Puritans were well on their way to victory. Initially through parliament and then through Cromwell’s dictatorship the Puritans made their religious beliefs law and Christmas was banned. Along with Christmas nearly all holy days were banned aswell under the new “Directory of Worship” in 1644.
The Puritans didn’t do things by half measure, when they said Christmas was cancelled they meant it. Through the 1650’s the army was sent out to ensure that people were not celebrating Christmas. Soldiers confiscated meat on December 25th to ensure no one might have too much fun. They even fined the hero of the English civil war – the parliamentary general Thomas Fairfax for attending a Christmas play!
Opposition to the ban
As you can imagine cancelling Christmas wasn’t the most popular move in English political history. In 1647 attempts to enforce the Christmas ban resulted in riots. Canterbury was engulfed in widespread violence and “pro Christmas” riots which would become the spark that lit the second English civil war.
Even after the civil war was over and Charles I was executed in 1649, the law banning Christmas continued to meet widespread opposition. Through the 1650’s it was even opposed in the parliamentary stronghold of London where shops remained closed on Christmas day.
Ultimately the ban ended when the Puritans were driven from power in 1660. Charles II returned as monarch and revoked the law banning Christmas. Christmas however would remain banned in the Puritan stronghold of Massachusetts, New England until 1681.
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