When Celebrating Christmas was a Crime

In England and her American colonies, the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in the 1600s.

(photo: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Flight into Egypt”, c. 1655-1660)

In seventeenth century Old England and New, the celebration of Christmas was banned. Banned in Boston and banned in London, with threats of arrests and penalties for those who violated the law.

Within the Church of England, there had been division about the celebration of Christmas, with some High Church Anglicans, who believed that ceremony and ritual still had a place in religious worship, arguing that it was right and good to celebrate the birth of Jesus with some festivity and joy. The Puritans, however, who had been arguing for greater reform in the state church since the reign of Elizabeth I, thought any vestige of the traditional celebration of Christmas was just too “Popish” or “Papist” and harked back to the bad old days, when England had been Catholic.

Since the Puritans won the English Civil War and beheaded King Charles I in 1649, they proceeded to ban the celebration of Christmas. Anglicans, whose ritual in the Book of Common Prayer was also banned, joined the Catholics, whose worship and identity had been under attack since the sixteenth century, in the illegal celebration of Christmas.

Traditional Christmas Celebrations

The traditional celebration of Christmas, based on various customs throughout England, emphasized that Christmas was not just a day but a season and was an event that had turned the world upside down. In the darkest, coldest time of the year, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords had come in poverty as a little baby. Advent, with its Ember Days after the feast of St. Lucy, had been a season of fasting and reparation. So in the midst of the religious observances of Christmas from Christmas Eve to the end of the season forty days later, households celebrated with warmth (the Yule Log), beauty (holly and ivy decorations), music, carols, feasting, and the hint of Misrule.

And Catholics had continued to keep these traditions alive even after the English Reformation. Writing in History Today, Chris Durston explains:

Certainly, English recusants seem to have retained a deep attachment to Christmas during Elizabeth I's reign and the early part of the seventeenth century. The staunchly Catholic gentlewoman, Dorothy Lawson, celebrated Christmas 'in both kinds... corporally and spiritually', indulging in Christmas pies, dancing and gambling. . . . The Elizabethan Jesuit, John Gerard, relates in his autobiography how their vigorous celebration of Christmas and other feasts made Catholics particularly conspicuous at those times . . .

Dorothy Lawson’s biographer, William Palmes, describes how her festivity at Christmas was a departure from her usually more penitential way of living:

In this time of mirth and joy for his birth who is the sole engine and spring of true comfort, she unbent the stiffness of her brow a little, and dispensed with her accustomed rigour in so small a relaxation that I want a diminutive to explain it, unless I deem it that in quantity which philosophers call atoms or indivisibles in quality. . .
“She had in a room near the chapel a crib with music to honour that joyful mystery, and, all Christmas, musicians in her hall and dining chamber to recreate her friends and servants. She loved to see them dance, and said that if she were present, greater care would be taken of modesty in their songs and dances.

Mrs. Lawson wanted to make sure that moderation and modesty were still observed, even as Christmas was being celebrated “corporally”.

Father Christmas Exiled

In 1646, a royalist author named John Taylor published “The Complaint of Christmas” in which Father Christmas visits Puritan-ruled London and finds “no sign or token of any Holy Day. The shops were open, the markets were full, the watermen rowing, the carmen [seventeenth century teamsters] were a loading and unloading, the porters were bearing, and all Trades were forbearing to keep any respective memory of me or Christ. . .”

When Father Christmas asks about this state of affairs, he is told that he represents the Church of Rome and is an invader and an idolater, not welcome at all in Puritan England. He hears complaints from others, who miss “the liberty and harmless sports, with the merry gambols [and] dances . . . [by] which the toiling plowswain and labourer were wont to be recreated and their spirits and hopes revived for a whole twelve month”. Father Christmas decides to leave England that Christmastide, hoping to return another, more favorable year.

In The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis depicts the return of Father Christmas to Narnia, from which he has been exiled by the White Witch: "I’ve come at last. She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening." He gives the Pevensies useful and appropriate gifts for their battle with the White Witch and then rides away, proclaiming, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”

The Return of the King

In England, it would take the 1660 Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of King Charles II to restore Christmas celebrations to Court and country. Even the Merry Monarch could not restore all of the festivity of Christmas, as habits had changed during the eleven years of the Interregnum.

In the United States of America, Christmas would not be established as a federal holiday until after the Civil War, when President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed it in 1870. The traditions of Christmas trees, cards, Santa Claus, gift exchange, and charitable giving developed along with a new national identity, as historian Penne Restad, author of Christmas in America notes. She argues that even in our commercialized and backwards Christmas Season—celebrating Christmas during Advent and then leaving Christmas behind just when it’s really begun—we are still celebrating “a broadly shared hint of the sacred”.

Not unlike the Recusant Catholics of five hundred years ago in England, we face a challenge today to celebrate the season both “corporally and spiritually”: to participate in all the Christmas parties before Christmas without forgetting it’s still Advent and to keep our Christmas trees and crèches up after December 25 when everyone else has taken them down. That way, as Father John Gerard commented, we can be “particularly conspicuous” at this time by observing the liturgical year.