By the early seventeenth century, Christmas was one of the most important feasts in the English Calendar. It was a joyous occasion, when, for a twelve-day period, men and women marked the birth of Christ with religious observances – and ancient pastimes, Churches held services to celebrate the birth of Christ decked in the same holly and ivy as private homes. Once the religious rituals were over, people distributed Christmas boxes, to tradespeople, servants and the poor. Then they relaxed into the seasonal revels: playing sports and games, dancing, and eating and drinking seasonal favorites such as mince pies, plum pottage, and Christmas Ale.
Then, in 1642 the English Civil War broke out, and Christmas, as well as the King, found itself under attack from the Puritan parliamentarians. In staunch Parliamentary areas, Christmas day services ceased, and Christmas became like any other day, as shops remained open and business as usual occurred. In 1651, the Civil Wars were over and the monarchy defeated. However, the war against Christmas continued as the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell continued Parliament’s offensive on the midwinter festival. Cromwell’s task was no easy one, for the fight to abolish Christmas met with no small resistance. So why did Cromwell and the Puritans hate Christmas so much? And how did those people who wished to celebrate it defy the law?
The Puritan View of Christmas
The Puritans never approved of Christmas. They saw it as a frivolous festival without Biblical precedent. No one knew when Christ was born and nowhere in the Bible did it say to celebrate the Savior’s birth with riotous festivities. Christmas, therefore, was sinful and immoral- and superfluous to the Christian calendar. Consequently, the Puritan campaign against Christmas was almost as old as puritanism itself. Shortly after the establishment of the English Reformation, in the mid-1500s, the Puritan Pamphleteer Philip Stubbs published The Anatmie of Abuses in which he complained that at Christmas “more mischief is…committed than in all the year besides.”
Aside from being frivolous and entirely unnecessary for the salvation of true Christian souls, Christmas from the Puritan point of view was a source of ‘mischief’ for a variety of reasons. At best, it was a festivity with Catholic overtures, preserving as it did the “trappings of popery.” These ‘trappings’ were a reference in part to the central role of the Holy family in Christmas celebrations and in particular to the Virgin Mary who Catholics viewed as semi-divine but who the Puritans viewed as a complete irrelevance.
Strangely, the advent of Protestantism seems to have increased the importance of Christmas for the Catholic Church. During the Middle Ages, Easter had been the more important festival. However, with the rise of the reforming faiths, Catholics began to cleave to Christmas. Perhaps this was because it contained so many elements that their faith held precious, such as the Virgin Mary, candles and other symbols of ‘idolatry.’ Writers recorded that after the Reformation, the surviving Catholic priesthood determinedly kept the old traditions of Christmas as best they could even when they were imprisoned or in hiding. It was almost as if celebrating Christmas had become a gesture of defiance to the increasingly staid reformists.
At worst, however, Christmas to the Puritans was a barely concealed pagan celebration. Its mumming, holly and ivy and blatant feasting nothing more than ‘rags of the beast,” barely hidden in a Christian context. Many puritan scholars noted that the celebrations of Christmas had more in common with the Roman festival of Saturnalia and numerous other pre-Christian midwinter festivals than the birth of Christ.
Joseph Hemmings, a Staffordshire Presbyterian minister, writing in 1648, recognized that the early church had deliberately established the celebration of Christ’s birth at midwinter to help reconcile new believers to the Christian faith- and to try and stamp out pagan worship. However, the plan to replace the rebirth of the sun with the birth of the Son of God had not worked out too well, from the Puritan viewpoint. For that reason alone, Christmas needed to be stamped out.