1647: The Year Christians Cancelled Christmas

1647: The Year Christians Cancelled Christmas December 16, 2015

Well, I am overstating a bit. No one can really cancel Christmas, as the Grinch so famously discovered.

But the public celebration of Christmas can be cancelled, which is what happened in England during the seventeenth-century Civil War.

Here’s the story in brief–as related by Diane Purkiss in The English Civil War: While Charles I was fighting during the 1640s for his crown (which he would lose along with his life in 1649), an increasingly radical Parliament governed England. In the words of Purkiss, “that transhistorical killjoy a Parliamentary subcommittee” was created in 1643 to reform the Church of England. It regarded the liturgical calendar of medieval Christianity as both a symbol of Catholicism and a distraction from the Gospel. Sunday was the only holy day worth honoring.  All other festivals, including Christmas, should be cancelled.

Of course, this was easier said than done. Christmas was a beloved holiday revered in Tudor England. Asking people to give up Wassailing and Twelfth Night cake, not to mention their days off work, proved nigh impossible. Many people simply ignored the parliamentary decree of the “Solemn League and Covenant” subcommittee in 1643 and refused to go to work on Christmas day. Parliament cracked down in 1644 with an ordinance enforcing the Sunday fast day instead of the usual Christmas feast; in 1645 Parliament again declared Sunday and occasional celebrations as the only recognized holidays; finally in 1647 Parliament issued an ordinance officially cancelling all Christmas and Lenten celebrations, even arresting clergy preaching Christmas day sermons.

Despite initial resistance, this “War on Christmas” almost succeeded. Purkiss argues that the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 is what really “saved” Christmas (my apologies to Kirk Cameron’s movie last year). Although the ordinances were never fully realized–mobs forced Christmas celebrations in some areas–and even though the popularity of Edward Fisher’s 1649 defense of Christmas–which sold 6000 copies–suggests continued support for the holiday season, Purkiss argues that most people were beginning to conform “sulkily” by the 1650s. As Purkiss writes, “if the republic had lasted ten years longer, the old festive calendar would have been dead beyond recall.”

So seventeenth-century Christians cancelled public celebrations of Christmas because they were seen as more secular (Catholicism was seen as “popery,” not legitimate Christianity) than sacred. In a hauntingly similar way, modern Christian groups–like the American Family Association (AFA)–boycott many public demonstrations of Christmas because they are also seen as too secular. For example, the AFA 2015 “Naughty or Nice list” helps consumers take action against companies that  are not “Christmas-friendly” enough in their stores and advertisements.

In the midst of all these “wars” on Christmas, I can’t help but think about John Mirk’s late medieval sermon for “The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It declares: “Good men and women and Christian creatures, as you hear and see, this day all holy church sings and reads and makes melody in remembrance of the sweet birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ…the prince of peace, who came to make peace between God and man, between angels and man, and between man and man.”

The Christmas of 1647 is forever marked by a spirit of strife.  Christians, complaining that traditional Christmas was too “popish” and secular with sporting games and revelry (and with great restraint I am refraining from commenting on more recent complaints about red coffee cups….), literally fought over the celebration of Christ’s birth. I can’t help but wonder how history would have been different if, instead of marked by war among Christians, the Christmas of 1647 had been marked by the spirit of the baby in the manager: “our Lord, Jesus Christ…the prince of peace.”

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  • Scott Daves

    When everything’s an attack on Christmas, then nothing’s an attack on Christmas.

  • ortcutt

    Puritan New England waged a “War on Christmas” that lasted much longer than in England. William Bradford sought to stamp out Christmas in Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts and Connecticut followed suit. In 1659, Massachusetts even made Christmas observance subject to a 5 shilling fine. It wasn’t until Edmund Andros was appointed governor of the Dominion of New England by James II that Christmas was legalized. Even though the holiday was legal, it was generally not observed in Massachusetts until after the Civil War. Boston Public Schools held classes on Christmas as late as the 1870s.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_in_Puritan_New_England

  • John Turner

    Great post!

    Do you have a favorite book on the English Civil War (or Stuarts through Civil War)? I’ve been searching for something to read on the era (I think I read Christopher Hill many years ago). Thought I might read Ackroyd’s new book, or Braddick’s. Any thoughts?

  • “Purkiss argues that the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 is what really “saved” Christmas (my apologies to Kirk Cameron’s movie last year).”

    I do want to understand the cognitive dissonance of neo-Calvinists who so venerate the Puritans but simultaneously make egregious excuses for repurposed pagan trappings and material excess surrounding Christmas. Christmas and Puritanism in its ascendant form cannot co-exist, because Christmas is too broad and complex for the binary mentality of Puritanism. I mean, I’m about as far from a Puritan as you can get, but I will say they were consistent, unlike folks like Kirk Cameron and Doug Wilson in his latest movie.

  • Tom

    You’re “about as far from a Puritan as you can get?” If that is really true, it’s sad. What do you really know about the Puritans? http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2009/12/disparaging-without-knowledge.php

  • I know quite a lot about the Puritans actually. And I’m not talking about the Puritan caricature that’s developed over the years about them. There’s no need to make them all out to be witch-hunting, slut-shaming religious maniacs in order to identify some rather odious aspects of their movement. And so I’m talking about the real, historical Puritan movement. John Winthrop and Cotton Mather, not the Puritans of Arthur Miller or Nathaniel Hawthorne. Its all quite alluring to a certain religious aesthetic and there were certainly many strong personalities with admirable traits among them. But there is a reason they have a reputation, and much of it is earned. There is a modern fascination of the Puritans among the neo-Reformed movement and an over-correction of modern myths in order to rehabilitate their image. But I care less about the Salem Witch trials than I do their actual theology and its consequences – not to mention their treatment of religious freedom, religious dissidents, and King Philip’s War. (Not to say other Christian sects during the period were much better) There was certainly diversity among the Puritans, but the more hardened they were in their ideology, the worse they became. So I reserve the right to make my own judgments.

  • Christmas was abolished in Scotland in about 1640 and did not become a modern public holiday until 1958. Unlike England, Scotland is a Presbyterian country and they took their anti-Popery very seriously back in the day.

    It was probably the growing secularisation of both Christmas and Scotland that allowed the country to start celebrating Christmas once again. Today it is a a boozy precursor to the real festival which is Hogmanay, or New Year, as you call it.

  • Tom

    So, you refer to American Puritans. Would you also include English Puritans such as Owen and Bunyan? Or are they also in the group you “are as far from as you can get?” Was that just hyperbole?

  • candide

    We see in the history of non-mainstream Protestantism the total hatred of anything remotely Catholic. Christmas was anathema to these Protestants.

  • Yes, they are very far from me. Their outlook on the world, particularly their Calvinist take of the sovereignty of God, did violence to their compassion for men, in practice. That doesn’t mean they were all the devil incarnate and produced no good thing. “John Milton” is the reply to that view (though it can disputed the extent to which Milton was a Puritan). I don’t view the world in binaries – that is precisely my critique of Puritanism. . . the tendency to looking at the world in just that way. John Bunyan is a great example. How many nuanced, complicated, realistic characters are there in Pilgrim’s Progress? The story being an allegory is one thing – but everything and everyone in the story eventually fits into the dichotomy of good or evil, pure or impure. You are on the side Evangelist, or the side of Worldly Wiseman.

    But the world we live in is one where the lines between such characters are continuously blurred. It’s very comforting to look at the world in such a simple and clean way, but it’s also very myopic.

    When Puritans came to power, what was the result? A happier England? Religiously tolerant American colonies? The results are not rosy. And the seedbed of religious dissent is often conflated with the Puritan movement. I have no issue with religious dissent, especially those that insisted on the right of others to dissent (i.e. the Quakers). But a dissenter who frees you from an ornate, “popish” jail cell and throws you into a spare, plain jail cell is hardly a liberator. The fact is that the Puritans were often better persecutors than those that persecuted them.

  • Jed

    Dec 25th or “christmas” is a totally pagan, non Biblical day which “christians” are all hot and bothered about..it has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, and everything to do with keeping a pagan custom dedicated to the sun god of ancient Babylon about 7 centuries before Jesus birth….there is no commandment from God to keep this day and nowhere did He make it Holy or sanctifiy it. So why keep it? It causes more depression and suicides because people cannot live up to the the expectations of their children and families on this day for material items, gifts, foods etc..it is a strictly mercenary event..No matter how hard “christians” try to play God and make this day Holy, they always fail…only God can make days and things Holy…Jesus said in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 do NOT follow the traditions of man, but follow the Commandments of God….

  • Mark in savannah

    It’s so funny to listen to Protestants fight over Christmas. As if a celebration of Christ’s birth had to coincide with the actual birth of Christ to be valid. And, oh geez, I just read a history book that said it coincided with the nativity of Sol Victus. And oh gosh, those horrible Catholics (and most of “protestant” English) did things other than pray all day in celebration of Christmas. They actually celebrate and eat and drink and breathe like the pagans! What rubbish! These comments reflect complete ignorance of the enormous implications of the Incarnation (God became flesh, real flesh and blood!), the wisdom of the Spirit in guiding holy Mother Church down to this day (including the use of “protestants” much like he used the Babylonians to chastise the OT Jews) and the profound nihilism of true paganism against which the truly good news of Christ proclaimed by the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church stands as a stark contrast!

  • Unfortunately the war on Christmas has been working. You rarely here a Christian Christmas song anymore. Even when a station plays Christmas music, only a few Christian ones are aired per hour.

    As my wife said, the non-Christian ones have no life. It is true.

    Today’s children do not even know the classics like “O little town of Bethlehem” “Come all ye faithful” “Away in a manger” “What Child is this?” “We three kings” “Joy to the world”

    The liberals are destroying the fabric of America. We were founded on freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

    To you and your family: Have a Merry Christmas!

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    They pretty much had it right, Christmas is has absolutely nothing to do with true Christianity, it is nothing more than an affirmation of the power of the Catholic church to change times and seasons. For that matter Easter and Sunday supplanting the Sabbath are likewise non-biblical and endorsements of Catholicism. I think it is humorous that Evangelicals disdain the Catholic tradition then observe most of the non-biblical edicts of that church.

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    Don’t stop there. Bring out the truth of the non-biblical, pagan foundation of Easter and the non-biblical transposing the Day of Rest from the Sabbath to the first day of the week.

  • ek ErilaR

    Have you read “The Reformation of Rights” by John Witte, Jr., “Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed” by Philip Dominic or “Puritanism and Liberty” by ASP Woodhouse, perhaps the ur-text of the Reformed revival?

    “When Puritans came to power, what was the result?”

    The overthrow of a monarchy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the execution of a tyrannical king and a legitimate attempt to form a republic in England

    In the colonies, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 clearly established a constitutional democratic republic in the Bay Colony that expressed itself as a republic of church-towns. The Liberties were widely adopted in Connecticut and New Hampshire and did lay the ground work for the separation of the church from the state. Roger Williams considered himself to be both godly and an Independent. John Winthrop agreed but the old light Presbyterians did not.

    You should also turn your attention to the Leveller movement in England. Almost uniformly, the Levellers were associated with the Independent (Congregational) churches, the New Model Army and the several “Agreements of the People.”

    Did you know that John Winthrop’s brothers-in-law, Thomas and William Rainborowe, argued for the Agreement of the People at the Putney Debates in 1647?

    Some of us really do find the trappings as well as the theology of high church christianity offensive as well as boring.

    BTW – Quaker, Baptist and Unitarian churches evolved from Independent churches in England and America during and after the 1640s.

  • ek ErilaR

    The best non-partisian history of the English Civil Wars I’ve read is “God’s Fury, England’s Fire” by Michael Braddick but you have to be able to accurately distinguish a Presbyterian from Independent to get the most out of it.

    If you are a fan of the Levellers, “The New Model Army” by Ian Gentles and “The Levellers and the English Revolution” by NH Brailsford (edited by Christopher Hill) are must reads.

  • ek ErilaR

    Of course, Andros was the agent of the vile James II and he was thrown in jail in Boston in 1689. That was the third time the Bay was on the verge of rebellion against a Stuart.

  • And 90 years before the Tea Party, Rev. John Wise led the dissent against Andros’ unrepresented taxation:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wise_(clergyman)