Why the Puritans cancelled Christmas

PUBLISHED: 16:01 21 December 2006 | UPDATED: 13:42 04 May 2010

IN these last hectic few days before Christmas, complaints about the commercialisation of the affair are frequently overheard, particularly while waiting to pay for all of those purchases. By next Monday evening, the presents will be unwrapped, the house

IN these last hectic few days before Christmas, complaints about the commercialisation of the affair are frequently overheard, particularly while waiting to pay for all of those purchases. By next Monday evening, the presents will be unwrapped, the house will look a mess and we will be feeling as stuffed as the turkey. So perhaps we would have been better to have stuck to the Puritan way of taking the 'mass' out and observing Christ-tide.

By 1642, Christmas had become an important religious festival and a time when the people of England would indulge in a wide variety of traditional pastimes. December 25 was a public holiday; people did not work and attended special church services. This marked the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas. Working hours were reduced and the days were spent in merry-making.

Buildings were decorated with rosemary, holly and ivy and there was dancing, singing, drinking and traditional stage plays were performed. While the majority of the population were happy to indulge themselves in the festivities, Puritan elements in the nation frowned upon the frivolities. In their eyes, Christmas encouraged wanton excesses of the worst kind - drunkenness, gambling and promiscuity.

In the late 16th century, Philip Stubbes expressed the Puritan view of Christmas in his book The Anatomie of Abuses: "More mischief is that time committed than all the year beside...What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used... to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm."

As well as the unnecessary over indulgences encouraged by the festivities, the Puritans believed that the celebration of Christ's mass was an unwanted reminder of Catholic England and Wales. With the Puritan reliance on the word of God through the Bible, they could find no texts to support the celebration of the birth of Christ. They also called on a ban of Easter, Whitsun and saints' days and all immoral celebrations.

Charles I supported the traditions and festivities and, as the Civil War progressed, this became another nail in his coffin. In January 1645, Parliament started to put into place the move to stricter religious observances. A group of ministers was enlisted to create the Directory of Public Worship. This was a handbook for ministers and established a new organisation of the church by removing the Episcopal system and stopping the use of the English Book of Common Prayer, which was seen as Papist.

Unless Christmas fell on a Sunday, people had to report to work. Consequently, in 1645 Christmas riots broke out in the streets of London, with apprentices singing carols and kicking soccer balls. The riots were soon dispersed, but people's anger about the ban continued.

Charles I was against the changes, but his power and authority was diminishing rapidly and he had little choice other than abiding by Parliament. In 1647 it passed an Ordinance affirming in law the abolition of the feast of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun and Sunday was to be strictly observed as a holy day. The Puritans strongly believed in the protestant work ethic and enjoyment for enjoyment's sake was highly disapproved of.

In 1649, Charles I was executed and in 1653 Cromwell became Lord Protector. He ordered that inns and playhouses were to be shut down, most sports were banned and anyone caught swearing could be fined. Life must have seemed very dull.

So, give all of those living through the days of Puritan rule some thought as you battle through the checkouts in the coming few days.

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