Records reveal how Christmas was once cancelled
Documents from The National Archives reveal how the wave of religious reform that swept across England during and after the English Civil War could have changed the way Christmas is celebrated today.
The Council of State Letters and Papers (catalogue reference SP 25/15) show how Oliver Cromwell and his allies in Parliament objected to the excess and debauchery that followed the traditional celebration of Christmas. In accordance with their Puritan views, strict rules were drawn up banning all familiar festivities relating to Christmas, including feasting and carolling. The restriction also meant that worshiping idols and using the word 'Christmas' became serious offences. Previous to this, in 1642, the government had declared a monthly fast to remember the famine in Ireland. During this fast, the playing of sport and conducting of trade were banned - this was to be observed even when it fell on Christmas day in 1644.
Despite the rules, later entries among the government papers suggest that the ban on Christmas and other holy day festivities were ignored. In December 1657, orders were issued to the authorities in London and Westminster to clamp down on visible traditional celebrations of festival days. An extract from the Council of State Letters and Papers, SP 18/158, f.95, reads:
'The festivals of Easter, Christmas, and other holy days having been taken away, the Lord Mayor and justices of London and Westminster are to see that the Ordinance for taking away festivals is observed, and to prevent the solemnities heretofore used in their celebration.'
Sean Cunningham, Head of Medieval and Early Modern Records at The National Archives, commented: 'Although this might seem like the ultimate Christmas Scrooge story, it's no surprise that the anti-Christmas legislation was ignored by many people who continued to follow ancient traditions in secret. What is most astonishing, however, is that for almost two decades the festivities of Christmas week were officially forbidden. If the ban hadn't been publicly reversed by Charles II, the joys of Christmas might have been a time consigned to history.'
The restoration of the monarchy in May 1660 reversed the doctrine and encouraged a return to the traditional ways of celebrating. The country was once again officially allowed to mark the 12 days of Christmas.