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William Dobson - Portrait of a Family, Probably that of Richard Streatfeild

Why did the Puritans cancel Christmas?

Portrait of a Family (1645) by William Dobson | Wikipedia | Public Domain

A peculiarly persistent cultural obsession is the concept of the 'war on Christmas'. According to some conservative pundits, an elite coalition of politically correct progressives, 'woke' leftists and outright Communists have been trying to slowly purge or de-Christianize Christmas over the years. Proponents of the 'war on Christmas' idea are often outraged that phrases like 'Season’s Greetings' or 'Happy Holidays' are replacing 'Merry Christmas' (even though both of those alternative greetings date back to the 19th Century). They also warn that communities are being somehow instructed to strip the very word 'Christmas' from festivities (perhaps replacing it with 'Winterval', even though that was just a word briefly used in relation to some events in Birmingham back in the 1990s).

The fearmongering has been around a long time. Back in the 1950s, America’s right wing John Birch Society warned that the war was being waged by Communist infiltrators, saying 'one of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas.'

Ironically, though, the one time Christmas really was outlawed, the people responsible were actually devout Christians, acting on the grounds it was not holy or Christian enough. This was the now-notorious Christmas crackdown enacted in the 17th Century by English Puritans who regarded it as a frivolous, wasteful, decadent festival. But, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Oliver Cromwell, in the role of Lord Protector, who 'cancelled Christmas'. His Protectorate commenced in 1653, but anti-Christmas fervour had been underway for many years. Indeed, a decade before the Protectorate was founded, Parliament passed an ordinance scolding those who had turned 'this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights'.

It was certainly true that Christmas had long been associated with extreme indulgence. Think of Richard II’s raucous Christmas feast which saw 28 oxen and 300 sheep consumed. Or the early Tudor tradition of the 'Lord of Misrule', a person appointed to orchestrate flamboyant parties in aristocratic houses and universities. One Lord of Misrule, a 16th Century lawyer called George Ferrers, once put on a masked Christmas ball featuring headpieces festooned with serpents, and mock jousts.

Christmas had long been associated with extreme indulgence

The Puritan parliamentarians of the mid-17th Century despised such merriment, and were also deeply suspicious of the Catholic connotations of 'Anti-Christ's Masse, and those Masse-Mongers and Papists who observe it.' The dawn of the English Civil War and diminishing power of Charles I allowed them to make their moves against Christmas. As a Royalist ballad written after the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 put it, 'I’ll tell you news that’s right / Christmas was killed at Naseby fight'.

In June 1647, there was a new ordinance by Parliament ruling that the 'Feast of the Nativity of Christ' would no longer be observed as a festival. There were to be no more decorative flourishes of holly and ivy, no more carols and no more merriment. Businesses would operate as normal on the day. The news didn’t go down well – a riot broke out in Canterbury when pro-Christmas locals attacked and smashed the shops of people who dared to open on Christmas Day. There was unrest and flashes of violence in other regions, too, with troops enacting the measures by force.

As one pamphleteer, John Taylor, wrote: 'Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.' Christmas effectively went 'underground', with clandestine services and celebrations held during the years of Puritan rule, which lasted through Cromwell’s Protectorate right up to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

One bishop, writing about the Christmas season of 1655, described how Christmas worshippers 'yet suffered to offer up the public prayers and sacrifices of the Church, though it be under private roofs, nor do I hear of any for the present either disturbed or troubled for doing it' – which implies the authorities would often turn a blind eye to those who stubbornly carried on celebrating the season, as long as it was suitably subtle and behind closed doors. There are even accounts of open defiance of the ban, with shops and other businesses shut by people determined to celebrate Christmas – despite the ever-present threat of party-pooping Puritans with the 'power and authority to plunder pottage-pots, to ransack ovens, and to strip spits stark named.'

While Cromwell, being a devout Puritan, would have approved of the pious abolition of hedonistic festivities, he was by no means the driving force of the initial legislation. So, whatever anyone thinks of Cromwell, it’s a tad unfair that his name has been bound up with the cancellation of Christmas ever since. But it’s certainly true that his fellow Christians succeeded in doing what the secret conspiracies of PC politicians, Communist agents and 'Winterval' warriors still haven’t: banning Christmas.