When Christmas was illegal

History - Mark Whitaker on the Puritans' decade-long ban on Christmas festivities

However much some of us might dislike Christmas, the vocabulary we use to describe it suggests we don't do so with any great passion. "Over-commercialised", "cliche-ridden", "too long" - that's about as far as our condemnation goes, which is pretty insipid stuff compared to the language that Puritan revolutionaries in mid-17th-century England came up with: "The darling of rude and licentious persons", "superstitious", "pagan", "Satan's working day", "Antichrist's Mass".

While those who experience Christmas nowadays as a cultural oppression are simply objecting to a mixture of Victorian sentimentalism and modern commercial greed, 17th-century Puritans were worried about altogether more important things. They saw the celebration of Christmas - and other "religious" festivals that weren't specifically laid down in the scriptures - as major obstacles to England becoming a properly Christian nation. To them, Christmas was contaminating because it was itself contaminated. And doubly so. Literate Puritans knew their classical authors, so they knew that the timing of the Nativity - for which the Bible gives no date - in late December was a political move by the early Church to wean "pagan" Romans off their great midwinter festival of Saturnalia. They also knew that, over the centuries, this paganism had been overlaid with "papist" trappings - just the sort of trappings to which Charles I was to show himself so partial.

Good Protestant English people, the argument went, celebrated Christmas at their peril. A few days of careless and inappropriate feasting could well mean eternal damnation. In 1650, a year after the execution of Charles I, a Puritan minister confidently asserted that, during the twelve days of Christmas, "more souls are sent head-long to hell than in all the rest of the year beside". And, six years later, another preacher, regretting that people simply wouldn't give it up, insisted that "most of the national church do serve the devil on that day and the twelve days following". He added that he saw his job as being to "beat the people off from this observation whereunto they feel themselves driven by a cursed thing within them".

The problem for the Puritans who ruled England during the civil war and interregnum was that people's reasons for celebrating Christmas were hardly Satanic; it was more an attachment to having fun during the darkest, most miserable time of the year. Work - whether it involved farming, fighting or travelling - was a seasonal thing in the 17th century; and it stopped in midwinter. It was the poor's one sustained "holiday", and it also offered them rare access to large quantities of rich food, especially meat, and strong drink - paid for, what's more, by someone else. Traditionally, the poor would entertain the rich with singing, dancing and plays: the rich, in turn, would reward them with food, booze and cash. The festival was genuinely communal and intensely popular.

Yet, from Elizabethan times onwards, those who wanted a "purer", less Catholic English Church, had Christmas in their sights. The festival took centre stage in what the historian Ronald Hutton has called the long "war of attrition" against the old ritual calendar of popular merry-making. The influential Puritan writer William Prynne railed against Christmas in 1633 with language that later became stock-in-trade for the politically correct during the interregnum: "When our Saviour was borne into the world at first we hear of no feasting, drinking, healthing, carding, dicing, stage plays, mummeries, masques or heathenish Christmas pastimes; those puritanical angels, saints and shepherds knew no such pompous Christmas courtships which the devil and his accursed instruments have since appropriated to his most blessed Nativity." And with the military defeat of Charles I, those against Christmas found themselves in power. Their job, as they saw it, was to push through a "Godly Reformation", and Christmas had to go.

The formal announcement came in the summer of 1647 - the Year Zero of the English revolution, when anything seemed possible. While Levellers were spreading ideas of radical democracy in the New Model Army, and Diggers were experimenting with communism in the Surrey hills, parliament was flexing its executive muscle. On 8 June came the terse announcement: "Be it ordained, by the Lords and Commons in parliament assembled, that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and all other festival days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed within this kingdom of England."

And the order was taken seriously. John Greene, a London lawyer, recorded in his diary later that year: "This Christmas Day we had but few sermons anywhere, many of them that intended to have preached being interrupted by some from the parliament . . . the Lord Mayor was very zealous in pulling down holly and ivy, and received divers affronts in doing it." And in Essex, the Puritan vicar Ralph Josselin really got into the spirit of the new Christmas: "This day I had a meeting of divers honest Christian friends at conference at my house. We discoursed of the image of God in man."

But their attack on Christmas opened Puritans all too easily to royalist ridicule. The Rump Parliament did its best to censor what hit the streets and, in September 1649, passed an act banning "hawkers and ballad-singers" - any who persisted were to "be conveyed to the House of Correction, there to be whipped as common rogues". But this couldn't stop the flow of anti-Puritan propaganda:

"To conclude, I'll tell you news that's right,
Christmas was killed at Naseby fight:
Likewise then did die
Roast beef and shred pie."

So went a verse of a ballad that was sung to one of the best-known royalist tunes. A favourite device was to have an ignored and dejected Father Christmas walking the joyless streets of English towns in which no one dared to welcome him. The popular poet John Taylor wrote: "Can any Christian man tell poor old Christmas where he is? Is this England or Turkey that I am in? Is this London or Constantinople that gives me no better entertainment?" Taylor then scorned the lengths to which the regime went in order to prevent any sign of seasonal celebration: "Their madness hath extended itself to the very vegetables, the senseless trees . . . holly, ivy, mistletoe, rosemary, bays, are accounted ungodly branches of superstition."

A penchant for celebrating Christmas became a symbol for a lack of commitment to the parliamentary cause. On 26 December 1650, for example, the Council of State was told of "wilful observation of the day commonly called Christmas Day" throughout London and Westminster; and of "contemptuous speeches used by some in favour thereof, tending to the contempt of the present laws and government". Yet nothing shows more clearly that most revolutionary Puritans were men of conviction, rather than political expedience, than their refusal to recognise how this sustained attack on Christmas was guaranteed to lose them support. Seasonal festivities were far more popular than Charles I. And Charles I undoubtedly benefited from their being banned. When the authorities in Canterbury tried to force local shopkeepers to open up on Christmas Day in 1647, the shopkeepers set off a major riot. For several days, an anti-parliament mob, joined by sympathisers from around Kent, took possession of the city. The Cambridge historian John Morrill has argued that popular resentment over the ban on Christmas was crucial in providing Charles I with sufficient support to make his last desperate military stand in 1648.

Yet the revolution persisted in its attempt to wean the people of England off their seasonal dependence on feasting and merry-making. And there's something rather sad in that, even at the end of the 1650s, when it was becoming obvious that Cromwell and his supporters had failed to find a viable and acceptable alternative to monarchy, the attack on Christmas continued. On 22 December 1657 (just before what was, it turned out, the Protector's last Christmas), the Council of State instructed Justices of the Peace around the country "to see that the Ordinance for taking away festivals is observed, and to prevent the solemnities heretofore used in their celebration", an admission that the decade-long ban on Christmas simply hadn't worked. Yet the regime got tougher that year than at any other time. In the first week of January, the Venetian ambassador in London wrote to his counterpart in Paris detailing how "all those who went to the churches to perform their devotions were arrested by the soldiers and placed under guard, as the government will not have these holy days celebrated". And, in the diary of the Anglican John Evelyn, there's a famous account of what happened to him when he was quietly commemorating the Nativity in a private chapel near the Strand. "I went to London with my wife, to celebrate Christmas Day. Sermon ended, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers. As we went up to receive the Sacrament, the miscreants held their muskets against us, as if they would have shot us at the altar: but yet suffering us to finish the office of Communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do in case they found us in that action." Evelyn was held for 24 hours, lectured on his "ignorance", and then released.

It is uncertain how deeply the majority of English people wanted the return of the monarchy in 1660. But there's no doubt that they wanted to be able to dance around maypoles again, and to celebrate Christmas with feasting and dancing. However, what the Puritans couldn't kill off, the industrial revolution very nearly did. Christmas had been the great festival of the traditional village community; as this community broke up in the 18th century, so its festivities began to lose their meaning. Christmas was reinvented by the Victorians as a family event; and what's happened to it since can only make one nostalgic for the festival to which Puritans so objected. Come to think of it, a Puritan Christmas wouldn't be such a bad idea, either.

Mark Whitaker is the producer/presenter of When Christmas Was Illegal, which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 10.10pm on 24 December