Since the Middle Ages Christmas had been celebrated in much the same way as today: 25 December was the High Holy Day on which the birth of Christ was commemorated and it kicked off an extended period of merriment, lasting until Twelfth Night on 5 January. Churches held special services; businesses kept shorter hours; people decorated their homes with holly, ivy and mistletoe; taverns and taphouses were brimming with merrymakers; and families and friends came together to gorge themselves on special food and drink including turkey, mince pies, plum porridge and specially-brewed Christmas ale. And communal singing about the season was all the rage. This led to ever increasing noise and laughter and unmentionable goings-on.
This horrified the more sober and puritanical members of the community especially as little attention was being paid to the holiness of the Season, the basis for celebration.
Objections to supposedly frivolous additions to the religious calendar, like Christmas, were voiced by Puritan leaders. They saw Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities to the “great dishonour of God”. The discontent felt with the Puritan community towards festivals led to the enactment of forceful legislation.
In 1644 an Act of Parliament effectively banned the festival and in 1645 Parliament produced a new Directory for Public Worship that made clear that festival days, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsun were not to be celebrated but spent in respectful contemplation.
Following the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army consolidated its control over England. Charles I was tried, convicted and executed for high treason in 1649. The monarchy was abolished and a republic called the Commonwealth of England was declared. Cromwell was definitely a deeply committed Puritan.
The Puritans were further deeply unhappy that the actual celebration of “Christ-mass” indicated close association with Catholicism which, of course, the Puritans detested. Suddenly only Sunday was allowed as a holy celebration which became compulsory, and all other Saint’s Days and Holy Days, especially Christmas Day were totally prohibited, together with associated celebrations.
During Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653-58), stricter laws were passed to catch anyone holding or attending a special Christmas church service. From 1656, legislation was enacted to ensure that every Sunday was stringently observed as a holy day – the Lord’s Day.
By contrast, shops and markets were told to stay open on 25 December and the City of London soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for Christmas celebrations.
To Cromwell and his fellow Puritans, though, singing and related Christmas festivities were not only abhorrent but sinful. Accordingly they viewed the celebration of Christ’s birth on 25 December as a “Popish” and wasteful tradition that derived – with no biblical justification – from the Roman Catholic Church (Christ’s Mass), thus threatening their core Christian beliefs. Nowhere, they argued, had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity in such fashion.
But the voices and festive spirits of English men, women and children were not to be so easily silenced. For the nearly two decades that the ban on Christmas was in place, semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and people continued to sing in secret. Christmas carols essentially went underground – although some of those rebellious types determined to keep carols alive did so more loudly than others. On 25 December 1656 a member of parliament in the House of Commons made clear his anger at getting little sleep the previous night because of the noise of their neighbours’ “preparations for this foolish day’s solemnity . . .”.
While Cromwell certainly supported the move, and subsequent laws imposing penalties for those who continued to enjoy Christmas, he does not seem to have played much of a role in leading the campaign.
The legislation was deeply unpopular and was enforced only sporadically. When King Charles II returned to power in 1660 one of his first acts was to declare all anti-Christmas legislation between 1642-60 null and void, helping foster his image as the “Merry Monarch”.
From then on both the religious and the secular elements of the Twelve Days of Christmas were allowed to be celebrated freely.