History: Cromwell’s take on Christmas revealed

Documents from The National Archives reveal how a wave of religious reform that swept across England during the English Civil War could have permanently changed the way Christmas is celebrated today.

In January 1642 King Charles I and Parliament declared that a fast should be held on the last Wednesday of each month for the “lamentable and distressed” condition of the king’s subjects in Ireland.

The Church ensured that people did not play sport or conduct trade on the day and those who defied the ban were reported to Justices of the Peace.

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In December 1644, the fast day was due to fall on Christmas Day for the first time. Parliament issued an order squashing any doubts that the fast should be abandoned.

At the same time, Oliver Cromwell was becoming more prominent as the military and political leader of the Parliamentary forces against King Charles I in the English Civil War. His stringent fundamentalist Puritan views on religious observance and public behaviour prompted the first of many laws forbidding Christmas.

Cromwell and his allies in Parliament objected to the excess and debauchery that followed the traditional celebration of Christmas. They drew up strict rules to cleanse the country of such decadence. The existing fast to remember famine and suffering in Ireland then became linked to a clampdown on merrymaking and promiscuous behaviour.

All familiar festivities relating to Christmas were banned: from winter celebrations such as feasting, carolling to traditional decorations like holly. The restriction also meant that worshiping idols, using the word ‘Christmas’, or taking the Lord’s name in vain became serious offences. England at Christmas must suddenly have seemed joyless – especially when the new laws came on top of existing proclamations concerning the abolition of the theatre and public performance of plays.

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Nevertheless, later entries among the government papers suggest that the ban on Christmas and other holy day festivities continued to be ignored. In December 1657, orders had to be issued to the authorities in London and Westminster to clampdown on visible traditional celebrations of festival days

Sean Cunningham, head of medieval and early modern records at The National Archives said: “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 publically reversed by Charles II, the joys of Christmas might have been a time consigned to history”.

The Restoration of the Monarchy in May 1660 threw out all of this restrictive doctrine and encouraged a return to the traditional ways of celebrating. The country was once again officially allowed to mark the Twelve Days of Christmas.