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It is a common myth that Cromwell abolished Christmas, but it is based on a misunderstanding. It was the devoutly religious and parliamentarian party, working through the elected parliament, which during the 1640s clamped down on the celebration of Christmas and other saints' days. There is no sign that Cromwell played a particularly prominent role in the process and in the various pieces of legislation through which this was done – although an MP, he was away from London and on campaign while some of the legislation was debated and passed – though from what we know of his faith, he probably was sympathetic to the process.

There is plenty that would be familiar to us about how Christmas was celebrated in that era. Christmas Day was a holy day and a public holiday, with shops, offices and work-places closed, but it also formed the first day of an extended period of celebration and merriment, lasting until early January – the Twelve Days of Christmas. Over that period there were special church services; shops and businesses opened only intermittently or for shorter hours; public buildings and private houses were often decorated with holly and ivy, rosemary and bays; people visited family, friends and colleagues, exchanging presents, special food and drink was available and was consumed in larger quantities than normal, including turkey and beef, mince pies, plum porridge and specially-brewed Christmas ale; taverns and alehouses did a roaring trade and ‘Father Christmas’ sometimes appeared - more a figure overseeing community celebrations than someone who gave presents to children. Overall, for those who could afford it, it was period of greater leisure, of eating and drinking to excess, of dancing and singing, gambling, gaming and stage plays, of drunkenness and pleasure; a period when normal rules did not apply, of inversion and ‘misrule’.

Many people, especially the more religious, came to frown upon this celebration of Christmas. They disliked all the waste, extravagance, disorder, sin and immorality of the Christmas celebrations, but they also saw Christmas (that is, Christ’s mass) as an unwelcome survival of the Roman Catholic faith, a popish festival with no biblical justification – nowhere had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity in this way, they said. What this group wanted was a much stricter observance of the Lord’s day (Sundays), but the abolition of the popish and often sinful celebration of Christmas, as well as of Easter, Whitsun and assorted other festivals and saints’ days.

In the early 1640s, as power passed from Charles I (who supported the existing rituals and festivals) to parliament, it began the process of restricting the celebration of Christmas, pressing that ‘Christ-tide’ should be kept, if at all, merely as a day of fasting and seeking the Lord. In January 1642, shortly before civil war began, Charles had agreed to parliament’s request to order that the last Wednesday in each month should be kept as a fast day; many hoped that Christ-tide, 25th December, would come to be seen and kept as just an addition to these regular fast days. Parliament met and worked as usual on 25th December 1643. In late 1644 it was noted that 25th December would fall on the last Wednesday of the month, the day of the regular monthly fast, and parliament stressed that it was strictly to be kept as a time of fasting and humiliation, for remembering the sins of those who in the past had turned the day into a feast, sinfully and wrongfully ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. Both Houses attended intense fast sermons on 25th December 1644.

In January 1645, a group of ministers appointed by parliament – Cromwell was not an ordained minister and was not a member of this group – produced a new Directory of Public Worship, which set out a new church organisation and new forms of worship to be adopted and followed in England and Wales. The Directory made clear that Sundays were to be strictly observed as holy days, but that there were to be no other holy days – ‘festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued’. Parliamentary legislation adopting the Directory of Public Worship therefore prohibited (on paper at least) the religious celebration of all other holy days, including Christmas. In June 1647 the Long Parliament reiterated this by passing an Ordinance confirming the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun.

That prohibition technically remained in force – including during the period when Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector in the 1650s – until swept away, along with most of the other legislation of the civil war era, at the Restoration in 1660. In practice, however, the celebration of Christmas was too deeply engrained to be abolished in this way and there is plenty of evidence that Christmas continued to be celebrated, albeit sometimes in a slightly clandestine or subdued manner, in the years down to the Restoration. While he was passionate about promoting godliness and moral reformation in general, as Lord Protector Cromwell does not seem to have been particularly concerned about the marking of Christmas or taken much action to prevent its celebration.

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