As the leader of Parliamentarians against King Charles I during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell is one of the most significant figures in British history. Why did Cromwell cancel Christmas?
Christmas celebrations were banned by English puritans in the mid-1600s. It was felt that the holiday had become an excuse for drinking and debauchery. Cromwell himself was absent from the passing of the legislation, so it is unclear clear if he played any role in it.
For more on the circumstances surrounding the ban on Christmas, read on.
Opposition to Christmas
Though Oliver Cromwell is often credited as having banned Christmas, in reality, he was the figurehead for a much larger movement in England. Protestantism had become established in Europe over the prior century.
This gave rise to the Puritan movement in England, a group that was dedicated to the scripture of the Bible and looked to remove what they viewed as religious extravagances. Many Puritans considered Christmas festivities to be of Catholic origin, lacking biblical justification.
The biblical argument was not the only reason that many opposed Christmas, with concerns that the celebration had simply become an excuse for drinking and debauchery.
There was precedent for a ban on Christmas, as a similar ruling had been made in Scotland in 1640 by Presbyterians.
In early 1642, Parliament passed a bill calling for a monthly day of fasting and prayer in order to appeal to God. King Charles I signed the bill, which stated that this day would occur on the last Wednesday of each month.
When England descended into the English Civil War shortly after, Parliamentarians clashed with Royalists. In 1644, Christmas Day fell on the final Wednesday of the month, a day that was already set aside for monthly prayer and fasting.
There was concern that foregoing this monthly act of devotion in favor of drinking and celebrating on Christmas Day would be disrespecting God. With this in mind, Parliament motioned to have Church services canceled in favor of the usual quiet contemplation at home.
It isn’t clear how effective this ban was, as it was only enacted a couple of days before Christmas. The country was torn apart by Civil War and much of the land was not even under Parliament’s control.
In 1645, Parliament looked to make their new attitude toward Christmas into law. They wrote the “Directory of Public Worship” as a new code of worship for the Anglican church. Under this new guidance, traditional Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas were not to be given any special celebrations.
In June 1647, the ban on Christmas became official, alongside Easter and a number of other traditional celebrations on the calendar. This reached far beyond church ceremonies to include private celebrations in people’s homes, with fines for breaking the law.
The decision led to scattered riots in England, though these might have been caused by Royalists wanting to cause trouble.
Over the next five years, a number of laws were passed to make the ban stricter, including fines for attending or holding services. Shops were told to open on Christmas Day, and public opposition grew.
By 1655, England and Wales were under the control of the military. Some of the leading generals tried to enforce the ban but they were not entirely effective.
Parliament found that much of the population was ignoring the ban by continuing to celebrate at parties or closing their businesses for the day. Seeing that their attempts to ban Christmas had largely been futile, they did not pass any further legislation opposing the holiday.
Some historians believe that the ban on Christmas was never truly enforceable. Parliament’s ban was more a way of expressing their disapproval, rather than completely eradicating the Christmas celebrations.
Though Oliver Cromwell was an important figure in Parliament, he was not actually present when the ban was made official in 1647. He was a Puritan and made no attempt to contradict the ban, but there is also no evidence that he spoke in support of it. As such, it’s impossible to know how he felt about the measures taken against Christmas celebrations.
In 1660, the English monarchy was restored and the Christmas ban, along with most legislation introduced over the prior years, was removed. As the most famous Parliamentarian at the time, Cromwell has forever been associated with the ban on Christmas, but it will probably remain unclear whether or not he had any role in it.