Heritage: remembering when Christmas REALLY was cancelled

Heritage: remembering when Christmas REALLY was cancelled

by Martin Brisland.

Did you know that Christmas was cancelled in the mid 1600s?

Oliver Cromwell, a statesman and general responsible for leading the parliamentary army against the Royalist forces during the English Civil War, took over England in 1645. He believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of decadence.

In 1644 he enforced an Act of Parliament banning Christmas celebrations. The Puritans regarded Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened core Christian beliefs. All activities relating to Christmas, including attending mass, were forbidden. Not surprisingly, the ban was unpopular and many continued to celebrate Christmas in secret.

 In the first half of the 17th century before Cromwell, the 25th December was a public holiday, during which places of work closed and people attended special church services. The next eleven days included additional masses, with businesses open sporadically. During the twelve days of Christmas, buildings were dressed with rosemary, holly and ivy and families attended Christmas Day mass. 

 There was also dancing, singing, drinking, exchanging of presents and even stage plays. The population indulged in feasts of roast beef, plum porridge, minced pies and specially brewed ale. Twelfth Night, the final day of celebration, often saw a fresh bout of feasting and carnivals.

It’s no surprise that the daily celebrations often led to drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling and other forms of excess.

 Sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans frowned on what they saw as this frenzy of immorality. Philip Stubbes, a strict Protestant expressed the Puritan view in his book The Anatomie of Abuses, when he noted:

“More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God.”

As well as disliking the waste and debauchery that went along with the celebration of Christmas, the Puritans viewed the festival (Christ’s mass) as an unwanted remnant of the Roman Catholic Church after the break from Rome under Henry VIII in the 1530s.

They argued that nowhere in the Bible had God called upon his people to celebrate the nativity in this manner. They proposed a stricter observance of Sundays, the Lord’s Day. Along with banning Christmas they also did not celebrate Easter, Whitsun and saints’ days. The latter were known as Holy Days and gave rise to the term holiday. 

Preferring to call the period Christ-tide and removing the ‘Catholic mass’ element, the Puritans reasoned that it should remain only as a day of fasting and prayer.

The Puritan war on Christmas,  eradicating merrymaking during this time of year, lasted until the restoration of the monarchy with Charles 11 in 1660.

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