In 1647, Christmas was made illegal in England, when parliament declared the act of celebrating Christmas a punishable offence.
The demise of Christmas had been long coming. Tensions around the holiday had been bubbling for some time and when England’s civil war broke out in 1642, this all came to a head.
There were two sides to this war, the royalists (cavaliers) and Parliamentarians (round heads), both fighting for the way England was governed.
Now the royalists loved them some festive cheer, but the Parliamentarians, er, not so much. With a strong Puritan presence, they were very vocal on their belief that Christmas was an outdated excuse for debauchery, that had more than a whiff of the old Catholic faith (something they wanted eradicated!)
Spoiler alert: the good time guys didn’t win this war.
During the blood soaked feud, pamphlets prophesying the end of Christmas were released. Rebel puritans started opening shops on Christmas Day (a move so scandalous it caused riots) and in 1645 Parliament released its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, that totally omitted any mention of Christmas, making it (at least from Parliaments view) pretty much religiously void – unless you turned it into a service of piety and humiliation.
Christmas was on its last legs and it’s death nell came in April 1646, when the royalist forces were defeated at battle in Naseby and it became very clear, they were about to lose the war and the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell, were going to put England under puritanical rule. As one writer put it:
‘Christmas was killed at Naseby fight’
One year later in 1647, Parliament declared the mere act of celebrating Christmas to be a punishable offence.
Christmas was officially cancelled.
But the people of England weren’t letting Christmas go without a fight.
On Christmas Day 1647, pro-Christmas riots burst forth from all over England.
A group of Londoners set up holly and ivy decorations and in doing so, had to face down a group of soldiers.
On the same day, Canterbury descended into the fantastically named, Plum Pudding Riots. When locals, aghast at the fact that not only had mince pies been banned, but shops were now open on Christmas Day, decided to rebel in the most English way possible: by holding a mass football game where the main goal was to smash up as much shit as possible.
But riots didn’t bring Christmas back.
As the ban on Christmas continued, religious services celebrating the birth of Jesus became much more subdued and secretive, with several ministers actually being arrested for their activities.
In 1657 diarist John Evelyn recalled that he was attending a Christmas service at church, when the church was totally surrounded by soldiers. The congregation were held inside and interrogated over what they were praying for.
Eventually most people stopped trying to hold religious services for Christmas The risk just wasn’t worth it!
But do you know what was worth the risk? Christmas carols!
Carols were the double whammy of both being music (banned in churches under the new rule) and Christmassy (so, super banned.) Never before had the act of singing Hark The Heralds been so dangerous.
But clearly carols were still a beloved part of the new underground Christmas. In 1656 during a Christmas Day parliament session (after all, no Christmas equals no day off!) one MP moaned that his neighbours loud carol practising had kept him up all night, meaning he had not had time for:
‘preparation for this ‘foolish day’s solemnity
But then in 1660 there was a Christmas miracle! The monarchy was restored and with King Charles II on the throne that meant 2 things:
1.The end of puritanical rule
2,The return of Christmas!
Christmas was officially un-cancelled!
And the people celebrated in the most English way possible; by enacting exactly why the Puritans banned Christmas in the first place! By eating too much, drinking too much and getting way too merry.
Natasha Tidd is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s worked at museums and heritage sites across the UK. A huge history nerd, she will happily talk your ear off about women’s history, over several glasses (be real, bottles) of wine