One of the stranger fronts in America’s culture wars is the supposed ‘War on Christmas.’ In Britain, we did in fact once have a war on christmas but it was waged not by secularists but hardline Christians – namely the Puritans in the Roundhead camp during the Civil War:
One of the clauses of the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ which parliament signed with the Scots in September 1643 stated that, in exchange for Scottish military assistance against the king, MPs would ensure that further “reformation” of the Church of England took place. As Ronald Hutton has observed, this clause encouraged religious radicals on the ground to seize the initiative and to attack those aspects of the traditional ecclesiastical calendar which they disliked.
Three months later, a number of Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other, while several London ministers kept their church doors firmly shut. Meanwhile, many MPs turned up to sit in the parliament house, thus making their own disdain for the customary Christmas holiday very clear.
During the following year, moreover – when Christmas Day happened to coincide with one of the monthly fast days upon which parliament’s supporters were enjoined to pray for the success of their cause – MPs ordered, not only that the fast day should be “observed” instead of the traditional feast, but also that the fast should be kept “with the more solemn humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending [to] the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”.
In January 1645 the final nail was hammered into Christmas’s coffin, when parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, a radical alternative to the established Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all. Thus the way was paved for the ‘anti-Christmas’ of 1645 – a day upon which, in Taylor’s words, a man might pass right through the parliamentary quarters, and “perceive no sign or token of any holy day”.
The parliamentarians had abolished the high point of the English ritual year, and the cancellation of Christmas aroused huge popular resentment – not just in the royalist camp, but in the districts controlled by parliament, too. As early as December 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers who had opened on Christmas Day, and, in the words of a delighted royalist, “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”.
There were further dark mutterings the next year. On 24 December 1644, the editor of a pro-parliamentarian news-pamphlet expressed his support for the MPs’ decision to favour the monthly fast over the traditional feast, but admitted that “the parliament is cried out on” by the common people as a result, with incredulous shouts of “What, not keep Christmas? Here’s a Reformation indeed!”
This religiously inflected humbug can be explained thus:
The attack on the feast of Christmas had deep roots. Long before the Civil War began, many zealous Protestants, or ‘Puritans’, had been troubled both by the boisterous nature of the festivities which took place at Christmas and by the perceived association of those festivities with the old Catholic faith. During the early 1600s, most English Puritans had been prepared to tolerate Christmas. Following the rebellion of the Presbyterian Scots against Charles I in 1637, however, all this was to change.
The Scottish Kirk, which was itself fiercely Protestant, had abolished Christmas as long ago as the 1560s and, although James I had managed tentatively to restore the feast in his northern kingdom in 1617, it was banned there once again after his son’s defeat by the Scots in 1640.
From this time onwards, attitudes towards Christmas among English Puritans began to harden. And as political tensions between Charles I and his opponents in parliament rose during 1641 so a handful of Puritan extremists took it upon themselves to abandon the celebration of Christmas.
It took until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 for English citizens to be able to celebrate Christmas unmolested.
So celebrate Christmas safe in the knowledge that if they could see you now 17th century religious extremists would be most annoyed!