Christmas Cancelled? Lessons Learned from the Christmas Ban of 1647

By: Gemma McLoughlin-Burke BL

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(This article was originally published in Decisis Law Ireland in December 2020.)

This year is set to be a Christmas like no other. With COVID-19 still posing a risk to the health of the public, the financial strain of the last number of months continuing to cause hardship, and government regulations remaining in force for the foreseeable future, there has been a general feeling that Christmas this year "won’t be Christmas at all". However, as is often the case, our current struggle is one that has been experienced by our ancestors – if in somewhat different circumstances. This article takes a look back at the year when Christmas was outlawed to glean what, if anything, can be learned from 1647 to inspire hope for the Christmas of 2020.

The Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum were a series of legislative changes that were brought about between 1642-1660. Many of the ordinances (laws) were drafted by Puritans and were quite extraordinary in their piousness. In December 1643 for example, an ordinance was passed encouraging "subjects" to treat the mid-winter period 'with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights'. A stark contrast to the manner in which the Irish people engaged in their Christmas festivities! Seemingly, the excessive consumption of alcohol and mince pies irked the Puritans, who felt that the truly devout should be a little less merry.

In 1645, an ordinance was passed which prohibited the celebration of holy days which were not provided for in the "Word of God".  Then in 1647, Oliver Cromwell (a man who cared not for his popularity with the Irish people) was one of the parliamentarians who led the charge on passing an ordinance specifically banning Christmas and Easter. For 16 years, Christmas was illegal in the Kingdoms of England (which included Wales), Scotland and Ireland.

The laws included bans on private “feasts” or gatherings, Christmas mass, decorations (with holly and ivy meeting with particular disapproval), and Christmas productions in theatres and other entertainment venues (in 1655, Thomas Fairfax, former leader of the New Model Army, was famously fined for attending a Christmas play in London!). The new legislation repealed a former law which prohibited shops from opening on Christmas day and in fact made it illegal for businesses to remain closed to observe the holiday season. Soldiers patrolled towns and villages and were empowered to confiscate any food, particularly meat, which was suspected of being prepared for Christmas day. Similarly, singing a Christmas carol in public or being caught with a pint and a slice of pudding resulted in a stint in the stocks. Existing financial hardship was exacerbated by the ordinances, both as a result of the restrictions themselves which impacted on trade and services, and the never-ending fines imposed on those who broke the law by engaging in festive cheer.

However, in spite of the fines, arrests, and the threat of being pelted with cabbages and turnips for your crimes, Christmas continued. In England, “pro-Christmas” riots even broke out (including one in Canterbury which was the catalyst for the Second English Civil War). In both England and Ireland, the celebration of Christmas became a political statement and an act of defiance. Those ill-disposed towards violence and revolt kept Christmas in their own way. Family and friends gathered in secret, baking Christmas cakes and indulging in what meat and ale they could afford. The holiday was measured and lacked extravagance, but it was marked, celebrated and enjoyed, discreetly and covertly.

In 2020, our position is a little less extreme and the outlook far less stark. As government regulations remain in place over the Christmas period, the Christmas of 1647 serves as a gentle reminder that though festive cheer may be limited and restricted, it cannot be extinguished. Whether as a result of financial hardship or adherence to the regulations, the festive period will most definitely be smaller, more tame and less extravagant than years gone by. However, no matter the strange circumstances in which we find ourselves, history teaches us that life goes on, and - even against the might of Cromwell himself - so will Christmas!

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