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When Christmas was illegal

It’s the time of year when friends in high church traditions start posting memes about how the Puritans canceled Christmas. It’s true. Christmas was illegal (at least in England) for part of the 17th Century but was restored when the Protectorate ended and Charles II ascended to the throne. It was banned in Massachusetts for a longer period of time. Given the centrality of Christmas in modern consumer culture, this seems almost unthinkable.

We’re tempted to see this as a war on fun or something more sinister.

We all like to chuckle at the image of an austere Puritan standing with crossed arms staring down Christmas revelers in the name of humorless religion. We may wonder, however, if there’s more to the story? Was the move to limit Christmas celebrations simply a case of theologically-informed grumpiness?

Two explicitly theological reasons for Puritan objection to Christmas included the lack of biblical warrant for its observance and its connection to earlier pagan festivities. Beyond this, the merriment associated with Christmas goes beyond what many Americans are familiar with.

What Christmas looked like

A little research into Christmas observances during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods in England reveal practices that are fairly alien to many of us today. In some ways, Christmas celebrations were more akin to modern Mardi Gras than to Christmas in the United States today.

It becomes easier to be sympathetic to the Puritans when you conjure up images of Mardi Gras more than singing “Silent Night” by candlelight.

Begging and Indulgences

The poor took the opportunity to get some coin to enable their revelry. Stephenson notes:

In Roman Catholic times special arrangements were made whereby the poorer people found it easy to collect money by begging, which was to be applied to the purchase of masses for the forgiveness of the excesses to which they went during the Christmas revels.

Rowdiness

Critic of Christmas, Philip Stubbes, describes the festivities associated with Lord of Misrule (which some argue is connected to Roman saturnalia):

First, all the wilde heads of the parish, flocking together, chuse them a graunde captain (of mischief) whom they inrolle with the title of my Lord of misrule, and him they crown with great solemnities, and adopt for their king. This king annoynted, chooseth forth twentie, fourtie, threescore, or a hundred lustie guttes like to himselfe to wait upon his lordly majesty, and to guarde his noble person …. Thus all things set in order, then have they their hobby-horses, their dragons and other antiques, together with their baudie pipers, and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devils Daunce withall: then march this heathen company towards the church and church-yarde, their pypers pypyng, their drummers thundering, their stumps dauncing, their bells jyngling, their handkerchiefs fluttering about their heads like madmen, their hobby-horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng: and in this sorte they goe to the church like devils incarnate, with such a confused noise, that no man can heare his own voyce. Then the foolish people they looke, they stare, they laugh, they fleere, and mount upon formes and pewes, to see these goodly pagants solemnised in this sort. Then, after this about the church they goe agine and agine, and so foorth into the church yard, where they have commonly their summer haules, their bowers and arbours, and banquetting houses set up, wherein they feast, banquet, and daunce all that day, and (peradventure) all that night too.

Cut the Puritans some slack

I’m not a historian and my point is simply that Christmas in contemporary America is actually pretty tame. It bears little in common with earlier iterations, likely due to Puritan influence. We don’t associate begging, drunkenness, partying, rowdiness, and sexual profligacy with Christmas.

At the same time writers like C S Lewis convincingly cast such practices in a more positive light through fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia. The appearance of Father Christmas and the midnight dance of the Centaurs seem, somehow, an appropriate acknowledgment of the goodness of creation rather than an abuse of it.

In the end, I think we need to cut the Puritans some slack. At the same time, we do well to recognize that matter matters and God has given us a good creation to enjoy.

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Resources:

Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomy of Abuses. (1583). https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-anatomy-of-abuses-by-philip-stubbes-1583

Stephenson, Henry Thew. The Elizabethan People. New York: H. Holt, 1910. Shakespeare Online. 27 Dec 2019 < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shkchristmas.html >