Any news story that mentions Cromwell at this time of the year almost inevitably reports that Oliver Cromwell singlehandedly banned Christmas when he was Lord Protector. It has been said so many times that many people believe it to be true, but like so many things to do with Cromwell, it is a myth that, deliberately or not, helps perpetuate a negative image.
Today it is impossible to comprehend just how significant religion (and exclusively Christianity) was in this country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. People died for their beliefs, persecuted and burnt at the stake, sometimes for holding Protestant views and sometimes for holding Catholic ones.
The church in Scotland banned Christmas as early as the 1560s. The argument was that there was no scriptural basis for the celebration of Christmas, and therefore it was pagan, Popish and profane. Protestants, who could now read the Bible for the first time in English, were often literal and fundamentalist in their interpretation of the text.
Against this background, it was hardly surprising that Parliament in the 1640s, as the representatives of a Protestant and Godly nation, should decide that Christmas should not be celebrated. The Directory of Public Worship of 1645, which set out all the new forms of worship, made no reference to Christmas.
Parliament had to confront three issues: it had to convince people that the celebration was irreligious. In this they largely failed, as many wanted to stick to the old ways. There were significant pro-Christmas riots in places like Bury St Edmunds, Norwich and Ipswich in the later 1640s.
Secondly, Parliament tried to suppress religious services on Christmas Day. In this they were more successful, with few services being held to mark the day throughout the 1640s and 1650s.
Thirdly, 25th December was declared a normal working day. Parliament sat on Christmas Day, and many others treated it as a normal day. However, many others did not and continued to want to celebrate with feasting and dancing.
Why does Cromwell get the blame for all of this? Cromwell would almost certainly have supported the Parliament’s line, of which he was a part, but so would thousands of other devout Protestants. Cromwell neither proposed nor initiated the end of Christmas. His image as a dour Puritan is a creation of the 19th century, just as much as a ‘traditional’ Christmas is a creation of Dickens. As with so many things to do with Cromwell, you cannot see the issue outside of the context of the times in which it happened.
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