• The Time when Christmas was Banned| 戴啟思

  • 發布日期:2020-12-26 14:00
  • The Time when Christmas was Banned| 戴啟思

 

The Time when Christmas was Banned



Christmas is an important time of the year. Easter may be more significant as it celebrates the death and resurrection of Christ, but Christmas is Christmas.

It is a time to reflect on the birth of Christ which, in the words of Pope Francis, was the ‘decisive encounter between God and mankind’ but it is also a time to enjoy the society of family and close friends. It is time to take a break from the routine of work and indulge in good food and give and receive gifts.

Covid-19 will act as a constraint on the usual Christmas festivities this year. Irrespective of legal restrictions on gatherings, common-sense tells us to be careful when socialising in the next fortnight. Bosses will cancel Christmas office parties. People will refresh their friendships through soulless Zoom or Skype encounters. There will be a Christmas, but it will be an anaemic sort of holiday. It will be a Christmas that, hopefully, we will never see the likes of again.

Things could have been worse. Imagine the Government telling you that Christmas would be cancelled this year and forever! That was the prospect of facing English people in 1644.

In that year, just a week before Christmas, Parliament told the English people that they would no longer observe the Feast of Christmas and that they were required to fast and not drink and surfeit on fatty foods, like mince pies (in those days, pies that were actually made of minced meat and spices).

The new law was not lengthy. It comprised only a few sentences.



Public notice to be given for observation of Monthly Fast till further order.; And on the next day, being Christmas Day, in particular.

‘Whereas some doubts have been raised whether the next Fast shall be celebrated, because it falleth on the day which heretofore was usually called the Feast of the Nativity of our Saviour. The Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled doe order and ordaine that publique notice be given that the Fast appointed to be kept on the last Wednesday in every moneth ought to be observed untill it be otherwise ordered by both Houses of Parliament: And that this day in particular is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights, being contrary to the life which Christ himselfe led here upon earth, and to the spirituall life of Christ in our soules for the sanctifying and saving whereof Christ was pleased both to take a humane life, and to lay it down againe.’



The reason behind the ban was a religious one.



A hundred years before Henry VIII broke with Rome and founded the Church of England. Since that rupture, the Church of England moved away from the religious doctrines of Rome and adopted and adapted the new beliefs of Martin Luther and other European reformation figures.



From about 1560, there was a movement to ‘purify’ the Church of England. It sought to do away with all Catholic traditions that lingered in the ceremonies of the Church of England. Its members called ‘Puritans’. They were all for a stripped-down Sunday service with no elaborate ritual, incense, singing or commemorating saints.



The Puritans wanted observance of the Lord’s Day not to stop with just going to church. After church, you went home and pray and read the Bible and reflect on your sins. Christmas, in their view, was not a time for celebrating but, as the 1644 law says, it was a time for ‘solemne humiliation’.



The Puritans even objected to calling the feast by the name ‘Christmas’ because it incorporated the word ‘mass’, the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist. ‘Christ-tide’ was the name Puritans used to describe the feast day with ‘tide’ as in ‘Tidings of comfort and joy’ in the Christmas carol ‘God rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’.



Their solemn appearance and black clothing identified the Puritans. They were a political force in the country as many members of Parliament identified with Puritan ideals.



Parliament fought a civil war with King Charles I in the 1640s. Although that war ended only in 1649 with the King’s execution, Parliament went on enacting laws during the war years without the King’s consent. The 1644 ‘Anti-Christmas’ law was one of these laws.



With the Puritans the political force in the land, they could not resist the temptation to impose their world view on the rest of the population which, although now not Catholic, still hankered after some of the customs and observances of the old religion.



Christmas was the People’s holiday. A mid-winter feast celebrating the turning of the year was older than Christianity. The feast incorporated some pagan traditions. One was burning the ‘Yule log’, a practice that dates back to a time before German tribes invaded Britain in the 5th century and brought with them mid-winter rituals.



It was the time to kill hogs and geese that had been fattened in the autumn months. If you eat and drank to excess, it was in part down to the fact that animals had to be killed in the winter because there was no extra food for them and refrigeration had yet to be invented.



The ordinary people resented the new law but had to go along with it. In 1647, the law was expanded and made celebrating Christmas an offence. The new law expressly required shops to remain open on Christmas day, thus making Christmas an ordinary working day.



This was too much. Just as in Europe you see protests against anti-Covid-19 measures which threaten Christmas, the ordinary folk let the Government know what they felt about the new law by not complying with it. People smuggled drink and mince pies into their homes, even though the authorities had promised house searches to catch people enjoying themselves.



In the town of Canterbury in 1647, there was a riot when the town council announced that shops had to stay open. People assaulted the Mayor and some councillors and then broke into the town gaol and released some prisoners. The military appeared on the scene, and there were exchanges between townsfolk and the troops. Things quietened down with the protesters handing in their weapons-clubs and staves-in return for the authorities not pursuing the pro-Christmas riots.



The prohibition on celebrating Christmas endured for another thirteen years. In 1660 the son of King Charles I, Charles II, returned and assumed the throne. All the laws passed by Parliament without King Charles’ consent, were declared null and void. Christmas was, with all its ‘carnall and sensuall delights’, back. Since then, even in wartime, the feast has been celebrated.



Here’s to hoping that the shades of the 1644 law do not affect our Christmas!





About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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