It wasn’t the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, it was the Christians. Good Christians, too, firm in their faith and determined to rid the world of the evils of mince pies and merry making.
Oliver Cromwell gets most of the historic blame for the 1640’s official shut down of activities designed to bring Christmas joy to the masses, but the real villain was the English parliament which solemnly enacted the law banning all Christmas celebrations.
Cromwell was certainly in favour. Having had what was called a “religious experience” as young man he supported all measures to move mankind closer to Godliness as he and other Puritans perceived Godliness. When, shortly after the Christmas ban became law, he assumed the role of Dictator (he preferred Lord Protector) he embraced and enforced the ban.
It was a no-joy-law and in perception frighteningly similar to today’s Muslim Taliban version of what is holy. Women were banned from wearing make-up or colourful clothes and squads from Cromwell’s army roamed the streets searching for violators. They would give a woman an on-site face scrub if they judged her make-up overdone. The dress code for women was Taliban-Puritan strict – a long black dress covering neck to toes, a white apron with her hair bunched up behind a large white headscarf or black hat.
Men were ordered to wear black, keep their hair short and go straight home from work to lead the family in prayer and bible reading. To make the route home easy Cromwell ordered many taverns shut and the closing of all theatres.
The roving patrols stayed alert on Christmas Day seeking the smell of a goose being cooked or minced pies being baked. Fines could be imposed and the goose and pies confiscated. The enforcers kept their eyes open for sprigs of holly and other ungodly decorations, and their ears open for anyone cussing the new laws. Swearing was punishable by immediate fine with repeated offences resulting in jail.
To make sure the populace understood that the banning of Christmas (and Easter and Whitsun celebrations) was only part of a grand plan to bring the nation closer to God, Sunday’s were proclaimed to be special days, and one day in every month was designated a fast day. Women observed doing “unnecessary” work on a Sunday could be placed in the stocks, boys caught kicking a ball around or engaging in any other sporting activity could be whipped on the spot – and just going for a walk unless it was to church could result in a fine.
The clampdown on Christmas, while shocking when it came, was not unexpected. Over decades the festival that had morphed over the centuries from pagan bacchanal to Christian celebration had grown wild. By the late 1500’s Christmas was being described as the time when “ more mischief is committed than in all the year beside….what dicing, carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used…to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.”
Debauchery had become the way of Christmas and Lord Protector Cromwell – who wasn’t above a little banquet style celebration himself in the privacy of his home – strongly supported any move to curb public festivities. Any opportunity for him to spin his anti-Catholic paranoia was to be seized. After all, he argued, good Christian Protestants should never celebrate a Christ-mass with Catholic mass overtones. They even tried to cultivate a new name – Christmas-tide.
The Puritan’s ban on Christmas lasted a quarter of a century with shopkeepers fined for closing their stores on December 25. It wasn’t until 1660 – with Charles II back on the throne that Christmas was reinstated. To make sure people understood Cromwellian laws were now as dead as the enforcer the King had Cromwell’s body exhumed, the corpse decapitated and the Lord Protector’s head hung on a spike in Westminster Hall.
By then Puritans, who years early had fled England to start building the United States of America, were establishing old beliefs in the new land. After their second Christmas in America they ruled “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or in any other way….shall pay for every such offence five shillings as a fine….”
The ban lasted only 22-years but it wasn’t until 1856 that Christmas Day became an official holiday in Boston. Scotland took even longer. It was 1958 before Christmas was declared an official holiday north of the River Tweed thus ending the 400 year old ban promoted by firebrand preacher John Knox in the late 1500’s.
The Scots hadn’t chafed under their Christmas ban. They just moved the celebrations back a week and called it Hogmanay then, little more than 50-years ago, realizing English workers were getting two year-end holidays to their one, graciously agreed Christmas could again be celebrated.
Now, stop complaining about face masks. Think about Christmas under Cromwell. But go easy on the egg nog,