The original Grinch: How Ely’s Oliver Cromwell cancelled Christmas

Oliver Cromwell is one of English history’s most infamous figures. After helping assassinate King Charles I and completely uprooting the political constitution to make himself Lord Protector and plunge the country into the devout Puritan faith, he did the unimaginable – cancelled Christmas.

In 1656, relatively overnight, Christmas food, parties, celebrations and festivities of all kinds including stage plays, singing and dancing, became illegal. Instead, Christmas was to be a time of strict personal and respectful religious contemplation.

There is no sign that Cromwell personally played a particularly large or prominent role in the various pieces of legislation that cancelled Christmas, but history has named him a Grinch-like figure that halted all festivities and enjoyment. Read on to discover what really happened.

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Was Christmas really banned?

During Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653-58), stricter laws were passed to catch anyone holding or attending a special Christmas church service or festivities of any kind to celebrate the holiday.

From 1656, legislation was enacted to ensure that every Sunday was strictly observed as a holy day – the Lord’s Day. Shops and markets were told to stay open on December 25, when they would usually close, and in London soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for Christmas celebrations.

So, in short, yes, Christmas was very much cancelled.

Why was Christmas cancelled?

Members of the Ely Cathedral Choir on Christmas Eve today. In the 1640s, this would have been illegal
Members of the Ely Cathedral Choir on Christmas Eve today. In the 1640s, this would have been illegal
(Image: Chris Radburn/PA)

It’s fair to say that Cromwell and the Puritans still believed in the birthday of Jesus Christ and the massive importance of that day. What they didn’t like was how it was celebrated in the UK. They believed that Christmas no longer honoured the memory of Christ – instead the British used it as an opportunity to ‘misbehave’.

The Puritans saw Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities, to the ‘great dishonour of God’. In fact, it wasn’t only Christmas that took a hit from new legislation, but all public worship and holy days (holidays).

In January 1645, Parliament produced a new Directory for Public Worship that made clear that festival days, including Christmas, were not to be celebrated but spent in respectful contemplation.

What did Christmas look like under Cromwell?

In the 17th century, Christmas Day was a public holiday, with shops, offices and other places of work all closed, and people went to church to attend special services. People visited family, friends and colleagues, eating and drinking and exchanging presents, and the more affluent distributed ‘boxes’ containing money to servants, tradesmen and the poor.

Special food and drink became available and consumed in larger quantities than normal, including turkey and beef, mince pies, plum porridge and specially-brewed Christmas ale. Occasionally there were also fireworks.

More generally, it was a period of leisure, eating and drinking to excess, as well as dancing and singing, gambling, gaming and stage plays. But all this changed in 1644 when an ordinance made the joyful feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun completely illegal.

As well as the meal, there were to be no more Christmas parties, including festivities in the home, with fines for non-compliance. Not everyone actually abided by these rules.

By 1656 Parliament was complaining that many people were simply ignoring the ban, that even in London shops remained shut and festivities continued. Some MPs even complained of being kept awake by the sound of Christmas parties next to their lodgings.

From this point until the Restoration in 1660, Christmas was officially illegal. Unsurprisingly, it was not very popular -there were riots in Kent and elsewhere in 1647, and without a proper police force at this time, it was not very well enforced. Christmas continued despite the law.

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