“To conclude, I’ll tell you news that’s right
Christmas was killed at Naseby fight”
So goes the ballad The World Turned Upside Down. The Battle of Naseby was the critical battle in the English Civil War, which saw King Charles I dethroned and Parliament raised up. The author of the ballad was responding to Parliament’s abolishment of the feast of Christmas in 1647.
That seems unthinkable today, but the idea of doing away with the celebration of Christmas already had deep roots in England. While the decree turned out to be unenforceable, several ministers were jailed for attempting to preach Christmas sermons. Parliament would continue making attempts to ban Christmas in one way or another until the Restoration in 1660.
If Christmas is Outlawed, Only Outlaws will have Christmas
This is as close to a real war on Christmas as the western world has seen, and it was a war fought between Christians. Parliament was heavily Protestant, while King Charles had a Catholic wife and was believed to have Catholic sympathies. Catholicism and royalism were tied together.
In addition, the new Protestant sects were still figuring out what it meant to be Protestant. There were feeling their way through tricky issues like predestination and proper worship. The one thing they could agree on was that they weren’t Catholic, or “Papist” to use their favorite word.
This resulted in the movement that we loosely call Puritan, which attempted to “purify” the country of any Catholic taint. In many places they identified Catholic mass with music, colors, grand ceremony and festivities. All of these were also present in holiday celebrations. These, then, would have to go.
Christmas was a prime target. As early as 1561, when the Scottish Kirk authorized the First Book of Discipline, Christmas was listed alongside a number of other holy days which “because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”
There were several lines of argument against Christmas. The first is in the quote above: Christmas is not mentioned or commanded in the Bible. The second is that Christmas was an adaptation of Pagan rituals and a corruption of true Christianity by the Roman Catholic church. The third is that the dating of Christmas was a late guess by the church and not based on sound knowledge. Finally, it was popular to attack the drunkenness and excess of Christmas celebrations.
Behind all this were elements of the anti-Catholic bias. Protestants regarded “Papists” as being semi-pagan, with all sorts of pageantry and frivolity that offended the pius. It’s not surprising then that William Prynne, an extremely prolific British pamphleteer in the 17th century, included this diatribe in his Histriomastix, otherwise a Puritan attack on the theater:
‘‘If any here demaund, by whom these Saturnalia, these disorderly Christmasses & Stageplayes were first brought in among the Christians? I answer that the paganizing Priests and Monks of popish (the same with the heathen Rome) were the chiefe Agents of this worke.
Christmas: Not a Soft Target
The Puritans might have expected that opposition would come from the stubborn Catholic population trying to keep the “mass” in Christmas, but the general population quickly turned hostile to the anti-Christmas message. For example, in 1647 Canterbury erupted into riots. Mobs controlled the city for weeks. They forcibly placed holly above doorways, making this possibly the only time that rioters engaged in redecoration.
In the end, the laws against Christmas backfired massively. As Chris Durston notes in his article Lords of Misrule, holiday celebrations turned out to be the one thing that the common people would fight for. The Puritan attempts only strengthened the royalist sentiment in England.
One thing that surprises me is how this whole line of argument is absent from American history. We received multiple waves of migrants escaping the chaos in England, including a great number of Puritans. But while there are a few stories of the early New England colonies banning Christmas display, the whole idea seems to have been quickly dropped.