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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas Banned

Branle de l’Official - Preludium

The 17th century brought a continuation to many of the customs that had become associated with Christmas and in coming centuries would be still more defined. For example, after the 16th century it was common practice for apprentices and servants to ask their masters and their masters’ customers for money at Christmastime. Any gifts given were placed in earthenware “boxes” (like piggy banks) which were broken open on December 26th. It was then that minced pies attained their round shape and soon beef suet was the only meat ingredient in the pies. It became considered good luck to eat the pies in silence. There were several new carol collections published, among them the 1642 Good and True, Fresh and New Christmas Carols, and after the Restoration, New Carols for this Merry Time of Christmas (1661) and New Christmas Carols (1662). In 1607 at St John’s College, Oxford, people were surprised to find the students had chosen a “Christmas Prince,” the first one elected since the 1570s. He had been elected by the students from among them and named a council of nine ministers, and presided over plays, revels, disputations, on all holidays from St Andrew’s Day (November 30th) to Shrove Tuesday. By the 16th century, the practice of hanging up stockings was so prevalent that it was complained of. “A bad custom, because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not Saint Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul . . .” The way was paved for reform.


In 1561 Scotland issued the First Book of Discipline, which claimed that the fasts of Christmas, the Circumcision, the Epiphany, and those associated with the Virgin Mary, had all been invented by the Roman Catholic Church. By 1583, Scottish Presbyterians decided, there being no Biblical reason to celebrate Christmas, it would remain a normal working day for them (this continued until 1958!). A London newsbook, The Scottish Dove, set out the case for reform in 1643, that the Bible nowhere commanded the observation of Christ’s birthday, so that the decision to do so was wholly the responsibility of the state. “It added that change was needed as Christmas not only commemorated the ‘idol of the mass’ but was ‘frequently abused to carnal liberty’” (Hutton 207). A woman accused of theft in the Isle of Ely in 1617 had spent the period between Christmas and New Year moving between five gentry households in the Stilton area and getting fed at each. The Royalist Oxford gentleman Edward Fisher may have defended the holiday, but in 1645, The Scottish Dove had suggested that personal New Year covenants with God should be substituted for gift-giving.


The 1640s-‘50s in England have become infamous for making it against the law to celebrate Christmas. It was illegal for churches to be open on Christmas Day (unless, of course, it was Sunday), for mince pies to be eaten, and for people to decorate homes with holly, ivy, and mistletoe. (Although George I reinstated mince pies as part of the Christmas celebrations of 1714, Parliament never officially repealed the ban, so it is technically illegal to eat mince pies and plum puddings at Christmas in Britain.) Despite popular belief, this was a general Puritan crackdown (as evidenced by the above) and not specifically linked to Cromwell’s personal mandates. The tumult of the English Civil War contains the curious footnote of several years of cancelled Christmas.

In early 1640, the Long Parliament changed the name to Christ-tide, as the name Christ’s Mass was frowned upon as too Catholic. It was to be kept as a day of fasting and prayer. When the Long Parliament convened on December 25th, 1643, the Houses of Parliament did not have a holiday and instead attended intense fasting sermons, as was the case a year later. That year celebrations during the Twelve Days of Christmas were banned, and extreme Puritans dubbed the time “Satan’s working day.”

By June 1647, Long Parliament completely abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun. During the 1650s, carols were banned, shops and markets were ordered to stay open on the 25th of December, and soldiers made sure the mandates were obeyed by patrolling the streets and confiscating any food suspected of being cooked for Christmas celebrations. This led to many violent confrontations in London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds, and Norwich. In 1650, ’52, ’56, ’57, and ’59, Parliaments and Councils of State commenced fresh measures to put down revelry in the City.

These were the official lines; however, how did real people react? Did they continue to celebrate and risk punishment? A Puritan MP told the House of Commons, “The people of England do hate to be reformed. . . . These poor simple creatures are mad after superstitious festivals, after unholy holidays” (Golby 33). St Mary Woolchurch Haw in London and some small village churches did dare to celebrate during the Interregnum. But many people obeyed the commands. Between 1652 and 1655, John Evelyn could not find an open church on Christmas Day. In 1656 he heard a sermon and took the sacrament, but from a clergyman operating out of private lodgings. In 1657, he attended a service in the Earl of Rutland’s chapel and the whole company was arrested and interrogated. By 1652, however, a newsbook noted there was widespread feasting and singing of carols. John Taylor noted that year that country people in Devon and Cornwall were continuing to celebrate as they had before. Curiously, and encouragingly, some people still helped out the poor even if they, personally, did not celebrate Christmas.


With the coming of 1660 and the Restoration of Charles II, all the anti-Christmas legislation was declared null and void. William Winstanley, an Essex farmer’s son, was at the head of a pro-Christmas movement as Poor Robin Goodfellow. Diarist and writer, he showed it to be a social good and lobbied the powerful to set an example by opening their houses (as Elizabeth I and James I had done previously). His movement revived carol-singing (with such carols as “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “I Saw Three Ships”) and dancing. Charles II revived the tradition of balls and parties during the Twelve Days of Christmas in grand style. The “lords of misrule” so popular going back to the Middle Ages disappeared after the Interregnum. The Pilgrims had celebrated their first Christmas working on building projects, and even after the repeals of 1681, much of Puritan New England ignored Christmas altogether. New York had inherited from New Amsterdam a more Dutch, and therefore enthusiastic, celebration.

In the later 17th century, Christmas continued to be an important time for almsgiving, hospitality, and visiting friends. By the 1660s, a “Christmas box” meant a cash gift paid to tradespeople. In 1710 Jonathan Swift wrote he was being “undone” by such Christmas boxes. John Fielding wrote in 1756 that they were “burdensome to private families” (Armstrong 90). Packs of cards were replaced every year at Christmastime. The feast menu remained much the same, with families serving the best they could afford: the finest white bread, nuts, turkey, beef, brawn, souse, mince pies, plum pudding, cakes, and Wassail. Entertainments included mumming, carolling, and playing cards (with your new pack, I’m sure). Games that were ordinarily played by children could be played by adults at this time. Blind man’s bluff was one, hot cockles was another (one player hid his eyes in the lap of another player, while the others walloped him on the backside; if he could guess who it was then they switched places—sounds pretty weird to me). Hunting a Deer in my Lord’s Park (which was like Duck, Duck, Goose) was another.

Samuel Pepys recorded a number of details about his Twelve Days of Christmas celebrations. He mentions kissing his wife at the stroke of one on New Year’s Day, “observing that I believe I was the first proper wisher of it this year.” During the Twelfth Night celebrations of 1668, they enjoyed King’s and Queen’s Cake—“an excellent cake which cost me near 20 shillings, of our Jane’s making, which was cut into twenty pieces, there being that time so many of our company.” They held a party until 2 am and were so loud that the neighbors joined in.

Christmas was celebrated for many days, until Plough Monday—the first Monday after Twelfth Day. It marked the return to labor after the Christmas season. Young women might go door to door, trying to see if anyone was spinning flax. If they did find someone, they’d burn the flax to punish the over-industrious (!). Also, young ploughmen might go door to door, gathering money and performing songs or dances. Christmas might even linger to Candelmas, February 2nd, which was traditionally observed by the lighting of candles in Church, and was the last possible day to take down your Christmas decorations!

A Note on Xmas

The word “Christ” appears in medieval documents as “XP” and “Xt” and can be found in this form in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from 1021. Fish were also used symbolically to represent Christ (the letters of the Greek word for fish, icthys, spelled in order are the initial letters of the phrase “In∂O vç XÞiOTÓG, OEov YíóG, ∑cohÞ,” meaning “Jesus Christ, God’s son, Savior”). Another symbol used was the labrum, “X,” “P,” (merged together). These are the capital forms of the first two letters of the Greek spelling of Christ (XÞióTóç); the XP are pronounced “chi” and “roh.” From the 15th century onward “Xmas” was a widely used abbreviation, in part due to invention of the printing press. The church itself used the capital X to stand for Christ in order to cut down on printing costs. So if anyone chides you for using “Xmas” as an abbreviation, you have at least 400 years’ precedent behind you!


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