Did Oliver Cromwell really ban Christmas?
Festive games and carol singing were outlawed during the English Civil War
Despite winning the English Civil War and ruling the British Isles for five years, Oliver Cromwell is more commonly remembered as the ruler who did the unthinkable: banning Christmas.
The puritan lord protector of England and his religious faction had long campaigned against what they considered to be superfluous additions to the religious calendar.
But while Cromwell was undoubtedly a bit of a killjoy, the famous tale of the 17th century leader banning festive fun is not entirely accurate.
Was there a Christmas crackdown?
Yes. In 1644, King Charles I was still on the throne but was fighting troops loyal to the English parliament in the First English Civil War.
The monarch had ruled alone without Parliament from 1629 to 1640 before being forced to summon MPs to help him raise taxes to stamp out a rebellion in Scotland. When Parliament demanded radical reforms, civil war broke out in 1642.
Many people, particularly the more zealous protestants, or “puritans”, feared King Charles wanted to restore England to the Catholic fold, explains BBC History. Restrictions on Christmas were introduced by the puritan-dominated House of Commons in 1644.
“There had been complaints that the celebration of Christ’s birth was used as an excuse for drunkenness and debauchery. Christmas was renamed ‘Christ tide’ to avoid any reference to Roman Catholic ‘Mass’ and deemed to be an ordinary working day,” says The Times.
Christmas activities, such as dancing, games, singing carols and especially drinking, were eschewed in favour of sober religious contemplation for 25 December.
What did Oliver Cromwell have to do with it?
Author Katherine Clements says that while Parliament was reforming Christmas, Cromwell was “probably more concerned with winning victories” on their behalf as a principal commander of the New Model Army against the king’s troops at Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby in 1645.
Following King Charles I’s execution in 1649 and the parliamentary victory in the civil war, Cromwell became Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland in December 1653 – by which time the Christmas policy was firmly in place.
Nevertheless, John Goldsmith, chairman of the Cromwell Association, tells The Times that Cromwell must have approved of the Christmas ban as it continued under his rule until he died in 1658.
HistoryExtra says the legislation was “deeply unpopular” among the public and “when King Charles II returned to power in 1660, one of his first acts was to repeal all the anti-Christmas legislation, helping foster his image as the ‘Merry Monarch’”.