Published: 17-03-2010, 18:39


In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement surged across Europe. The leaders of this movement, known as the Reformation, sought to abolish Church practices they deemed inconsistent with scripture. The Reformation gave birth to Protestant Christianity and to the many different sects and denominations that fall under that heading. In Britain it inspired the formation of a number of sects, one of which was known as the Puritans.
The Puritans advocated a “purified” form of worship, stripped of traditional embellishments such as organ music, choir singing, ecclesiastical robes, and church decorations. Puritan ministers wore street clothes while presiding over simplified services in plain churches.
Throughout the sixteenth century British Puritans lobbied for Church reform. The majority of high-ranking officials in the Church of England opposed them, however, as did Queen Elizabeth I and her Stuart successors. In the early seventeenth century small groups of English Puritans sought religious freedom by immigrating to America. There they founded Plymouth Colony and, later, Massachusetts Bay Colony (see also CHRISTMAS IN COLONIAL AMERICA; CHRISTMAS IN ENGLAND).
By the mid-seventeenth century Puritan forces had gained the up-per hand in British politics and succeeded in ousting the king. During the years in which they dominated the political scene, the Puritans legislated a number of religious and social reforms forcing English society to conform to their beliefs. They directed some of these reforms toward the celebration of Christmas.

Before coming to power Puritan leaders had preached against what they viewed as irreverent and excessive Christmas customs. For example, in 1583 Philip Stubbes published a pamphlet titled Ana-tomie of Abuses, detailing what he viewed as the offensive behaviors with which the English celebrated Christmas. To his mind, a season marked by masking, MUMMING, theater-going, GAMES, gambling, feasting, and dancing, as well as by an increased number of sexual encounters and robberies could hardly be said to honor Christ (see also MASQUES). Puritans also objected to the drinking, gaming, fortune-telling, and carousing that characterized New Year’s Eve celebrations, and declared prayer and self-examination to be the most appropriate ways to commemorate the holiday (see also RESOLUTIONS; WATCH NIGHT).
By the mid-1600s, however, Puritan critics had gone from attacking excesses associated with Christmas to attacking the holiday itself. Between 1644 and 1659 the Puritan majority in Parliament attempted to abolish the celebration of Christmas. They pointed out that the Bible neither gives the date of JESUS’ birth nor requests that people honor it (see also YEAR OF BIRTH JESUS). According to their way of thinking, this meant that Christmas should be eliminated. Many Puritan leaders condemned those who disagreed with them as enemies of the Christian religion. For example, in 1656 one Hezekiah Woodward published a pamphlet whose title revealed, at length, his scorn for Christmas and those who observed it. It read:
Christ-Mas Day, The old Heathens feasting Day, in honour to Saturn their Idol-God, the Papists Massing Day, the Pro-phane man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious man’s Idol Day. The Multitudes Idle Day, Satans, that Adversarys Working Day, The True Christian Mans Feasting Day. Taking to Heart, the Heathenish Customes, Popish Superstitions, Ranting Fashions, Fearful Provocations, Horrible Abominations, committed against the Lord, and His Christ, on that Day and days following [Pimlott, 1978,53-54].
Puritan leaders in Parliament did more than just speak out against Christmas. In 1642 they banned the performance of plays at Christmas. In the year 1644 Christmas fell on the last Wednesday in December. The law ordered that people fast and do penance on the last Wednesday in the month. The Puritans saw to it that no exception would be made for Christmas. In London people ignored the edict, and shops closed as usual for Christmas Day. The following year the Puritan Parliament outlawed the religious observance of Christmas altogether, forbidding special church services in honor of the day. This change led one observer to comment wryly: “O blessed Reformation! ... the church doors all shut and the tavern doors all open!” Handfuls of the traditionally devout defied the ban and sought out priests who quietly continued to offer services on Christmas Day. Yet even such sober celebrations involved a calculated risk. On Christmas Day in 1657 soldiers burst into one London church in the middle of the Christmas service and arrested all present.

In 1647 Parliament took the final step. It outlawed the secular celebration of Christmas and many other Christian feast days as well. This time the edict met with active resistance, leading in some instances to violent clashes with officers of the law. In an effort to enforce the ban, town criers were ordered to ride through the streets shouting, “No Christmas! No Christmas!” Some London shops ignored the new law and closed on Christmas Day. Others remained open, drawing angry crowds to their doorstep.
Officers of the law were summoned to remove the GREENERY from several London churches, and sullen crowds booed the Lord Mayor when he appeared before them. A riot in Ipswich resulted in the loss of life. Oxford mobs rioted as well, though they were somewhat luckier, reporting only broken skulls. In Canterbury men defied the ban by playing ball games in the street, thereby frustrating the mayor’s attempt to open the market. Eventually, the mayor was tossed to the ground, and in the general mayhem prisoners were rescued from the town jail. Twelve shops did open their doors to do business on that day, but menacing onlookers tossed their wares roughly about, encouraging them to close. Ten thousand men of Kent and Canterbury resolved to defend their holiday in a public declaration threatening that if they could not observe Christmas Day under the current government, then they would see the king put back on his throne.

In spite of this outburst of opposition, subsequent Christmases saw few open confrontations. Historians believe, however, that behind closed doors many English families continued to celebrate a private Christmas, consisting of a day’s rest, a festive meal, and family merriment. Indeed, throughout the period in which both the religious and secular observance of the day were banned, many London shops continued to close on Christmas Day. In 1656 attendance in Parliament dipped notably on December 25. Presumably the defaulters were at home, celebrating Christmas.
Even these private, home celebrations did not escape Puritan criticism. Not only did Puritans object to those who observed Christmas by not working, attending religious services, and enjoying traditional entertainments, some strongly disapproved of traditional Christmas foods as well. To extremists certain foods, such as MINCEMEAT PIE and PLUM PUDDING, took on political connotations. Resisting them signified one’s loyalty to the current regime; indulging in them revealed royalist or Roman Catholic sympathies. These traditional Christmas treats proved difficult to resist, though, even for Puritans. In 1652 Puritan authorities accused one of their own, a preacher named Hugh Peters, of speaking against the celebration of Christmas in his sermons and then eating two mincemeat pies for supper.

In Scotland Puritanism took greater hold of both the laity and clergy. John Knox (1513-1572), leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian Church, opposed all church festivals. In 1561 the Scottish national assembly eliminated Christmas along with many other Christian feast days. In the years that followed, local authorities attempted to enforce this law. Historical records show that in the year 1574 fourteen women from Aberdeen were arrested and tried for dancing and singing carols on Christmas Eve (see also Christmas Carols). A baker found himself before local authorities for having thrown a New Year’s Eve party at which he reportedly cried, “YULE, Yule, Yule.” Others were punished for not working on Christmas Day. Nevertheless, thirty years later, shortly after the turn of the seventeenth century, some people still resisted the elimination of the old festivities.
Religious authorities repeatedly condemned the little bursts of midwinter revelry that took place in their towns. In 1606 clergymen in Aberdeen felt again compelled to denounce those who at Christmas or New Year’s donned costumes, wore the clothing of the opposite sex, or danced with BELLS, whether in the streets or in private homes. By the 1640s authorities began to turn their attention towards quelling home celebrations of the holiday. In 1659 one especially severe minister named Murdoch Mackenzie went to extreme lengths to enforce this ban. He undertook a house to house search on Christmas Day to make sure that none of his parishioners were enjoying a private Christmas goose.

In 1660 Parliament restored the monarchy and King Charles II assumed the British throne. King Charles restored all the old holidays, including Christmas. Many historians believe, however, that English Christmas celebrations never quite recovered their former luster. Indeed, the British never revived a number of old Christmas traditions, such as masques and the raucous revelry associated with the LORD OF MISRULE. In Scotland the Puritan attempt to abolish Christmas succeeded more completely. New Year’s Day replaced Christmas as the principal winter holiday in that region (see also HOGMANAY).

American journalist H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somehow, may be happy.” After reviewing the history of the Puritan campaign against Christmas, many contemporary Americans might agree with him. In order to gain a fuller understanding of what motivated the Puritans to cancel Christmas, one must consider the religious and political climate of the times. Puritan leaders sincerely believed that they were restoring their country to the true Christian faith. Moreover, in Reformation Europe politics and religion fused together to form a single system of rule. Each country’s leader customarily chose that nation’s religion, making religious dissent tantamount to political rebellion. Political authorities could, and did, imprison, persecute, and execute citizens for their religious beliefs. Depending on who was in power, both Protestants and Catholics suffered from this climate of intolerance. Viewed in this context, the Puritan crusade against Christmas can be seen as one of the era’s typical, if by our standards eccentric, attempts to compel ordinary citizens to adopt the religious beliefs of those in power.