There has been a lot of talk of 2020’s Christmas being cancelled. How Christmas must be saved.
Of course Christmas will always go ahead as sure as Monday will be followed by Tuesday, or next Spring will appear again (not soon enough). Although with limited pantos, carol services or office parties, Christmas 2020 certainly looks unusual.
But nearly four centuries ago, Christmas was indeed cancelled. It stayed illegal for a decade and a half. As now, drastic new laws banned certain gatherings. Back then though, this came from very different motives.
The Puritans were in power, and they took against a few particular aspects of the church. They shunned Catholicism, including its Mass, so a festival named after ‘Christ’s Mass’ was bound to be in the firing line. They took against the adoration of Mary, so the Nativity story was downplayed. They detested saints, including St Nicholas, who wasn’t quite associated with Christmas yet, but delivered the odd present in early December. Humbug indeed.
Christmas had become a rather drunken affair anyway. It wasn’t the homely cosy season it would become. Besides, why commemorate the birth of Christ at all? The only birthdays in the Bible were those of Pharaoh and Herod, who both celebrated with executions. Not a ringing endorsement for a birthday do.
Scotland outlawed Christmas in 1640, and it wasn’t officially reintroduced there till 1958. They didn’t miss Christmas; they had Hogmanay. Similarly Thanksgiving snuck in in America, when Christmas failed to land there. The Pilgrim Fathers forgot to pack it onboard.
In 1643, the English Puritan government needed Scottish military aid, so in return they promised to reform the Church of England a little more.
So that Christmas, word spread that good Puritan shopkeepers should open as usual on December 25th, and that Puritan churches should remain closed. Everyday folk had to pick a side: to celebrate Christmas or not? Satirist John Taylor mourned its loss: “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.” The Lord of Misrule had been a festive favourite – a mock king of the season bringing the party atmosphere… till now.
A year later, Christmas Day 1644 fell on a Wednesday, a traditional fasting day. So that meant a different test: feast or fast? Eating a Christmas dinner oddly became a political protest. Non-conformist minister Hezekiah Woodward labelled Christmas Day: “The old Heathens’ Feasting Day… the Profane Man’s Ranting Day… the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day… the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…” (None of these new names caught on.)
Christmas 1645 went one step further: it simply didn’t exist. Some celebrated, but it was no longer an official celebration. Parliament sat, though some MPs were seen yawning, kept up all night by rebellious carol-singers outside their windows.
1646 saw Christmas riots, on both sides. Pro-Christmas protestors confronted shopkeepers who dared open their shops on December 25th. The poor especially missed their festival, enjoying an annual break from the norm. Christmas also symbolised the noble ideals Cromwell and his cronies were trying to quash.
In 1647, a law was passed banning anything to do with Christmas. It was no longer enough to ignore it; it would no longer be tolerated. Daring defenders of the festive season covertly decorated public places, draping evergreens under the cover of darkness. The Lord Mayor of London rode around the city the next day, setting fire to any decorations he saw.
Attending church became risky business. Armed guards confronted those taking Christmas communion, aiming muskets at those taking the bread and wine, before arresting them.
For years after, riots broke out this time of year, especially in the east of England. In Ipswich, one protester known only as ‘Christmas’ was killed by a soldier. In Canterbury, Christmas supporters seized control of the city for weeks, in a last stand to protect the festival.
Old Father Christmas himself became the face of political propaganda: a symbol of nostalgic old England in this time of Christmaslessness. Pamphlets illustrated this bearded winter guest as happy, if not yet jolly (wait a couple of centuries for that), contrasted with miserable Puritans.
A much-loved dish was banned too: the Christmas pie. It was huge and crib-shaped (or coffin-shaped, representing two sides of Jesus’ life), so therefore idolatrous, especially when decorated with a pastry model of the infant Jesus. England’s food fans were an enterprising bunch though. They changed the pie’s shape and shrank it to something more bite-sized, more easily hidden in case caught out (stuff into mouth; mumble, “Who me?” while spraying crumbs at the officer in question). The name had to change too, so the new improved smaller pies were named after the mincemeat that was sometimes inside. The mince pie was born.
Christmas pie consumption on December 25th is still officially illegal in England. The government hasn’t bothered overturning it, because no one’s really eating Christmas pies any more. Plus they’ve got other brand new Christmas laws to uphold, from three households-a-meeting to the Rule of Six geese-a-laying to five gold tiers (Scotland only, and yes they’ve finally reinstated Christmas).
Oh, Christmas did return by the way, when the monarchy came back in 1660. All these unusual periods come to an end.
Christmas may have changed over the years, but unexpected events can provoke change and innovation – whether thanks to Puritans or pandemic. Without the 1640s’ ban on Christmas, we wouldn’t have mince pies to guzzle. Arguably too they helped shift Christmas away from being a drunken street party, instead ushering the festivity into the home, to become something more domesticated and family-based.
Whatever you’re doing this Christmas (or allowed to do), learn from our 17th-century ancestors…
Don’t have a riot.
Have a mince pie.
Adapted by Paul Kerensa from his book ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas’ (£7.99), available in all open bookshops or from Paul direct on firstname.lastname@example.org