The Man who stole Christmas

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

The man who stole Christmas was Oliver Cromwell. Well to be honest it had to more to do with the Puritans who supported Cromwell. In the 1640’s most people loved Christmas as much as we do today. But the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians had two problems with it. One was that they thought a religious festival was being hijacked by people who just wanted to get drunk. But they were also suspicious of any religious festivals which seemed to them to be part of the Catholic teaching they rejected.

In 1644 Parliament passed a law that Christmas was to be a fast and a penance rather than a celebration. For twelve years the law was rigorously enforced. Shopkeepers were arrested for closing on Christmas Day. Evergreen decorations were prohibited. Parliament sat as usual on Christmas Day. Even churches were not allowed to open.

What happened in practice was that people still celebrated Christmas at home and found reasons not to be at work. What lost out was the religious observance of Christmas, while the secular Christmas survived.

Nowadays most Christians are happy to be part of the secular celebration of Christmas and most churches make room for a Christmas tree. Some will even include Father Christmas as part of their services. Most Christians are happy to combine the birthday of Jesus with the old midwinter festival. It is true that more people go to church at Christmas time than any other time of the year, which shows that British people still want something of the Christian festival as well as the secular one that goes alongside it. Even many Jews and Muslims in Britain celebrate Christmas, exchange presents and have the traditional trimmings of the day. British Christmas these days is not wholly religious or secular it’s a mixture of the two, as it has been ever since it began.

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