The Time Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans Declared War on the English Christmas

English Puritans Taking the Covenant. Facsimile of a playing card from a pack entitled ‘The Knavery Of The Rump’ Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Puritans Declare War on Christmas

 The protestant dominated Scottish Kirk managed to abolish Christmas in the 1560’s- although King James VI brought it back in a toned down form in 1617. However, Puritans in England remained sadly thwarted in combating Christmas because their influence was restricted. Instead, many contended themselves by distancing themselves from the festival. Some removed any religious connotations from the festival, referring to it as Christ ’tide’ instead of Christ ‘mass”. If they did mark Christmas day at all, it was a day of solemn fasting and reflection rather than feasting. However, most Puritans preferred to ignore Christmas altogether.

This all changed with the outbreak of the English Civil War. In exchange for Scottish assistance against King Charles I, English MPs had to agree to the reformation of the Church of England to meet exacting Presbyterian standards. The radical puritan elements in the English parliament needed no further excuse.  Finally, they could declare war against Christmas as well as the King.

Initially, Puritans banned Christmas in all areas that declared for parliament. On Christmas day, shops were directed to remain open, and church services were forbidden. Meanwhile, parliament itself was busy in London issuing legislation independent of the King that would ban Christmas. In 1644, MPs passed an ordinance which confirmed the abolition of Easter, Whitsun, and Christmas as feasts of the Church of England. Christmas Day was a day like any other- and to prove the point, staunchly puritan MPs made sure they were at work on Christmas Day.

The Puritans ordered all shops to open as usual on Christmas Day. Picture Credit: Jonathan Billinger / A Christmas Shop / CC BY-SA 2.0.

In January 1645, a new directory of Public Worship declared Sundays the only holy days, due to all other feast days “having no warrant in the word of God.” Now any minister found to be holding services at any other time- including Christmas- was to be imprisoned.  Although Cromwell was not directly responsible for the instigation of the Puritan campaign against Christmas, when he became Lord Protector in 1653 he introduced stringent new measures of his own to bolster existing legislation.

Under Cromwell, legislation to prosecute those who attended Christmas services was extended to include members of the congregation- not just the ministers. As well as declaring shops and markets should remain open, the Lord Protector also ordered soldiers to patrol the streets and seize and food and drink that appeared to be destined for a Christmas celebration. The measures were a mixed success. For although most churches did indeed abandon Christmas day services, it was harder to prevent festivities in private homes. As a result was, Christmas went underground. However, the celebrations went on. For the ban on Christmas was not a popular one.