When There Actually Was a War on Christmas

The traditional English Christmas of the early 17th century was a riotous affair. People drank to excess, feasted, danced, sang carols, and sometimes dressed up in costume. The emerging Puritan population did not care for this Christmas at all. They disapproved of the hedonism, the various Roman pagan inspirations, and the role reversals which came with the traditions of mummering and wassailing. They also had real religious arguments against the holiday. They pointed out that there was nothing in the bible which declared December 25th as Jesus’s birth date. They also feared any hints of Catholicism in religious or cultural traditions. Their Protestant king Charles I married a French Catholic in 1625 and he celebrated the holiday named "Christ Mass". To the Puritans’ dismay, the alternative Protestant name for Christmas, "Christ Tide", never caught on.


It was because of the Puritans that Christmas was banned in England for 17 years. They decided it was to be treated as a day of fasting and reflection, not for celebration. In 1652, the English Civil War began as a conflict between Charles I and Parliament. The following year, Parliament banned Christmas observances, both secular and religious. This ban lasted until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and throughout that period various attempts were made to crack down on the hedonistic, non-Puritan holiday.


Beginning in 1643, on Christmas Day Puritan tradesmen in London kept their shops open and Puritan ministers kept their church doors shut. To make the point that it was a day like any other, Puritan MPs sat in Parliament.


The prohibitions against Christmas celebrations worsened after the 1645 Battle of Naseby, a decisive moment in the Civil War which led to a Parliamentarian victory. After this battle and the crushing defeat of Charles I, Christmas came to be associated with his royalist supporters. One broadside even claimed that "Christmas was kil’d at Nasbie fight."


Following that battle, Parliament officially abolished the feast days of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost and imposed penalties on people caught celebrating the holidays. Parliament’s New Model Army was sent to break up church services as well as public secular celebrations such as festivals. Soldiers patrolled the streets of London and even seized food if it was being prepared for a Christmas feast, since the day was now supposed to be for fasting. Justices of the Peace were also tasked with enforcing these anti-Christmas rules by ensuring that shops remained open on Christmas Day, a job which could prove dangerous in the face of a defiant crowd.


Along with the pro-Christmas royalists, everyday people less concerned with politics joined in voicing their opposition to the Puritan ban on the holiday. Young men, especially apprentices, took to the streets to protest the opening of the shops, and the year 1647 saw a "great mutiny" in Norwich, pro-Christmas riots in Ipswich, and a mob attacking the house of the mayor of Cambridge because they wanted a Christmas church service. In London, the Lord Mayor and the City Marshall had a standoff with a crowd of people who just wanted to hang greenery on the city walls.


We know that the ban on Christmas was unpopular and ineffective because throughout the 1650s, Parliament felt the need to continue passing legislation that further clamped down on celebrations. Each year there were demonstrations and sometimes riots on Christmas Day, which led to shopkeepers closing their stores. The pro-Christmas mobs scared them more than their Puritan government. Since the shops were closed and church services weren’t allowed, people who still wanted to keep Christmas would gather in taverns, inns, and pubs. This effectively made Christmas an even more social holiday than before and did not prevent the drunken behavior which Puritans sought to prevent. To quote historian and author Judith Flanders, the general attitude was "It’s winter, we’re depressed as hell. Please could we have a party?"


When the monarchy was restored and Charles II came to power, he brought back all the previously banned Christmas celebrations, which in part led to his nickname "the Merry Monarch".