Christmas - ‘It should be banned!’ Or Should it?

Public Notice put up in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1659 announcing Christmas was banned

Public Notice put up in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1659 announcing Christmas was banned - Credit: Archant

Martyn Baguley looks back at Christmas Past

‘It should be banned!’

If, during recent weeks, you have felt overwhelmed at times by all the razzmatazz in the build-up to Christmas some such words have probably crossed your mind.

Last year three countries did ban all Christmas celebrations – Somalia, Tajikstan and Brunei – with punishments of up to a five-year jail sentence even for being seen wearing ‘hats or clothes that resemble Santa Claus’.

You may think it couldn’t happen here – but it did. In January 1645 the Directory of Public Worship announced that ‘Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.’ This was followed in 1646 by a Parliamentary ordinance which abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, substituting a regular holiday on the second Tuesday of every month for students, servants and apprentices.

Before then it had been both an important religious festival and one time in the year when people could relax a little from the drudge of daily life and enjoy traditional pastimes. All work places closed on 25th December so that people had no excuse for not attending church services. During the eleven days following Christmas Day businesses worked shorter hours and additional church services were held.

The ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ were a time for having fun. Buildings were decorated with rosemary, holly and ivy, people danced and sang, presents were exchanged, theatres were visited and large quantities of food, particularly roast beef, plum cake and mince pies, were consumed, washed down with copious quantities of ale. The celebrations reached their peak on Twelfth Night.

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Antipathy to Christmas had been building up for years. Writing about Christmas as early as 1583 Philip Stubbs, the English pamphleteer, asked the question of his readers – ‘Who is ignorant that at Christmas time more mischief is committed than in all the year besides? What masking and mumming? whereby robberies, whoredom, murder, and what not, is committed? What dicing and carding, what banqueting and feasting, is then more than in all the year besides!’

Apart from being critical of the waste and debauchery the English Protestant ‘Puritans’ considered the festival to be too reminiscent of the Roman Catholic Church and consequently an encouragement to closet Catholics in England and Wales. Preferring to call the period Christ-tide, which removed the Catholic ‘mass’ word, they argued that there was nothing in the Bible to suggest that God required His people to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They believed that anyone who worked hard during their lives would be welcomed into Heaven and enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake was an unnecessary diversion.

During the 1650s parliament ordered all shops and markets to stay open on 25th December and introduced specific penalties for anyone discovered to be holding or even attending a special Christmas church service. Anyone heard swearing could be fined. Women who worked on the Sabbath could spend some time in the stocks; they were expected to wear long black dresses, white aprons, white headdresses and under no circumstances to wear any make-up. Men were also required to dress in black and keep their hair short. Although part of the government administration that imposed the Christmas ban, Oliver Cromwell is said not to have entirely complied with it. He enjoyed music, hunting, played bowls and, even when promoted to Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, generally enjoyed the high life. For the wedding of one of his daughters he organised a banquet and entertainment reminiscent of the days of Charles I, whose lavish lifestyle he had criticised.

Although Christmas had been formally abolished, many people defied the law, clandestinely attended masses on December 25th and made it a public holiday. During the late 1640s there were frequent violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns, particularly London and Canterbury.

With the return of Charles II to the throne in 1661, all the legislation banning Christmas was rescinded. It had lasted for 18 years. Traditional festive merriment, and all that went with it, which had never completely disappeared, returned and continues to this day – although perhaps ‘mumming’ isn’t so popular.

Now, do you still think ‘It should be banned’?