The holidays this year have been a struggle. Many did not even expect the holidays would have been affected when the pandemic started in March . Gatherings will be smaller or over video chats and the holidays will not feel like the big event that they have usually been. Yet, it also gives us sometime time to focus on the things we are grateful for. Christmas could never truly be cancelled, right?
Well, actually, Christmas has been banned in previous centuries. It was banned in both the United Kingdom and early America. In 1647, Parliament decreed that Christmas was no longer considered a feast day or a holiday. This was under the rule of Parliament/Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who was placed in power as a result of the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. This regicide brought the Puritans (some of the most extreme Protestants) to the forefront of politics. Puritans believed that the whole celebration and overindulgence of the season was wrong. To them, there was nothing in the bible that stated there should be a celebration like this on December 25. In fact, the date December 25 originates from a pagan festival (the date of the winter solstice) which was just adapted to the Christian rhetoric during the early medieval era. The bible was the word for the Puritans and they had a strict adherence to it. Christmas should be like any ordinary day. There would be no large feastings, merry making, rowdy behavior, drinking to excess, decorations (idols), or any other “sinful” activities. They also disliked these traditions as they felt that the Catholic influence was still too strong on the Church of England.
Shops/taverns/inns were forced to stay open on Christmas day, it was illegal to attend a specific Christmas service, singing carols was forbidden and Christmas food/decorations were seized if they were found. Actual soldiers were sent to break up these large gatherings and these services. Parliament even met that day and continued on as usual. Prior to this ban, Christmas was celebrated similarly to how it was today. People had the day off, families would travel and get together, presents were given, and decorations were made. It was also a time for leisure for the working class and it was an opportunity to overindulge in foods, alcohol, romance, etc. Some of these celebrations when on for 12 more days after Christmas. Yet, as the Puritan faith began to become more popular, this was looked upon as sinful, disgraceful, and very similar to Catholicism (which was a stigma they had been working so hard to remove ). It was not until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 with Charles II that Christmas was “unbanned”.
I had heard about the banning of Christmas in England before I started my research, yet I did not know it was also banned in early America (New England to be specific). Puritans had also settled in the colonies in order to achieve the religious freedom that they desired. In 1659, the government of the Massachusetts Bay colony banned Christmas. Again, they felt the celebration of Christmas was a distraction from the true word of God and that it was sinful. This feeling was so strong that it really was not until the 1840s that Christmas, as a holiday, was universally accepted in New England. People who were caught taking the day off were sent back to work and those found participating in such activities were fined. The fine was even larger for those found gambling.
Yet, laws were made to be broken. As you might imagine, many were not happy with the new rules in either country. In England, Pro-Christmas riots began to occur. The most famous occurred in Canterbury where crowds of people began to damage the shops that had opened on Christmas day which then snowballed into them taking control of the entire city. This actually led to a larger rebellion against the new government (under Cromwell) in 1648. In 1647, there was a riot on Christmas day which led to a protestor getting killed. He became a symbol that Parliament had “killed” Christmas itself.
In New England, many people were attempting to celebrate under the radar, which is why fines were imposed for these activities. I also read about a particular group, the Boston Anticks, who would go around each Christmas and perform bawdy shows (especially in wealthy homes) for money. This group was apparently very annoying and very disruptive, yet were hard to identify because they were disguised. It was obvious they would perform these dramatic scenes on the “banned” Christmas day for more attention and, likely, profit.
Yet, these bans actually helped to form the Christmas we know today and actually made the event more popular. With inns, bars, and taverns forced to stay open, the holiday actual became more social. Additionally, after the bans, the celebration of Christmas became more mixed with the religious and the secular. Charity became very important (especially in the Victorian era). Christmas became a time to give to the less fortunate. Those who did not have a family to spend time with or a feast to partake in.
This Christmas will be difficult, but it is a time to be thankful for those in your life. I think this year we have learned that we take a lot for granted in our daily lives. We will just have to be creative and find different ways to celebrate , just like those who were affected by these Christmas bans.
Thank you again all for supporting my blog. I cannot wait to continue writing into the new year!
New England Living Today, ” How the Puritans Banned Christmas,” by Heather Tourgee • December 19, 2019