Did Oliver Cromwell ban Christmas?
One of the the things that everyone thinks they know about Oliver Cromwell is that he banned Christmas.
Did he really though?
There was a ban, but Cromwell's involvement with it is considered peripheral by most historians...
Why was there a Christmas Ban?
Many Protestants throughout Europe in the 1600s were suspicious of Christmas celebrations, including many amongst the 'Godly' or Puritan movement in England. They perceived such festivities as being too closely associated with Catholicism, at a time when Catholics were at best regarded with suspicion; at worst hated and persecuted. Some Puritans objected to the celebrations as there was no mention of such things in the Bible, and therefore couldn't be justified as they were not rooted in scripture. Many also felt that the Christmas festivities had simply become too drunken and debauched. Presbyterians in Scotland had outlawed Christmas in 1640.
How did the Christmas Ban come about?
In January 1642 a bill was passed by Parliament, and signed off King Charles, legislating for a monthly day of prayer, repentance and fasting. Such days were not unusual in the Early Modern World; when times were hard communities and even nations were often asked to spend such days abstaining from food and in prayer in the hope of Divine intervention to bring an end to their troubles. Under the 1642 law in England and Wales the last Wednesday of every month was to be set aside for such a purpose.
The first Christmas ban was in 1644, as it coincided with Parliament's monthly day of prayer & fasting in the hope of bringing about an end to the war, and a specific ordinance was passed to emphasise this. Church services were not to be carried out that day. Given that the ordinance was issued only a few days before Christmas, the country was torn apart by Civil War, and Parliament did not control much of the country, it was questionable how many people carried this out, although there were some protests in Bury St Edmunds against it.
In 1645 Parliament introduced a new 'Directory of Public Worship', designed as a replacement for the Book of Common Prayer, setting out a new form of worship for the Anglican church. It said that Christmas, Easter and other such festivals were no longer to be observed with special services or celebrations.
The outright ban came in June 1647, when Parliament passed an ordinance banning Christmas, Easter and Whitsun festivities, services and celebrations, including festivities in the home, with fines for non-compliance - although they also introduced a monthly secular public holiday (the equivalent of a modern bank holiday) instead. The Christmas ban was unpopular - there were riots in Kent and elsewhere in 1647, although some of these may have been an excuse for pro-Royalist rebels to cause trouble. A popular ballad 'The World Turned Upside Down' was published decrying the ban.
By 1652 Parliament had passed laws reinforcing the Christmas ban - with fines for staging or attending Christmas services, and shops ordered to remain open on Christmas day (a very modern debate perhaps?) The pamphlet 'Vindication of Christmas' published that year argued against these laws.
There was an attempt to enforce the ban more rigorously in some parts of the country during the Christmas of 1655 as England and Wales were under military rule, the so-called 'Rule of the Major Generals'. Some of these attempted to crack down, but with limited success and the practice varied in different parts of the country.
By 1656 Parliament was complaining that many people were simply ignoring the ban, that even in London shops remained shut and festivities continued, with MPs being kept awake by the sound of Christmas parties next to their lodgings! An attempt at further legislation got no further than the first reading.
The Council of State reminded the authorities in London in 1657 to keep enforcing the ban. Outside the capital it's again unclear how far this was effective.
Like many 'moral' bans, the ban on Christmas was largely unenforceable, particularly in an Early Modern State without the machinery of a modern government or even a police force. Similar bans in the past (such as the medieval Sumptuary Laws enforcing rules on fashion) had been ineffective. It can be argued that it was as much an expression of disapproval rather than with any real hope that it would be obeyed.
What was Cromwell's involvement with this?
Cromwell had very little role in the introduction of the ban, being more concerned with the war at the time. He was present during the passing of the 1644 ban, although more concerned with the passing of the 'Self Denying Ordinance'. Crucially he was absent from Parliament when the key ban was passed in 1647; indeed at that time he was under threat of arrest by the House of Commons for supporting the army in their protests over pay.
Cromwell may have approved of the laws - he was a member of the 'Godly' party and a Puritan, and never acted to repeal the ban - but as he never expressed an opinion on it in his letters or speeches we simply don't know for sure what he thought about it.
The Myth of the Christmas Ban
As with most Commonwealth/Protectorate legislation, the Christmas ban was removed in 1660 with the Restoration. The ban, its effectiveness - and indeed Cromwell's association with it - has become part of popular mythology over the last 350 years.
As an aside, the Christmas bans never included any mention of the banning of Mince Pies, which at the time were made with real meat and not specifically associated with the festive season (often also served at weddings). They were only proscribed by implication for Christmas 1644 (as it was a fast day) - otherwise the popular stories that they were banned by Cromwell are yet another Christmas myth!
The ordinance enforcing the cancellation of Christmas for a fast day, 1644
The 'World Turned Upside Down', 1647, a popular ballad published against the Christmas ban.
'The Vindication of Christmas', a pamphlet published in 1652 against the Christmas ban. The woodcut on the front shows an early image of Father Christmas.