The feast of Christmas is unique in the calendar of the Church’s holy days, in that it has been celebrated with a mixture of both religious and secular traditions, almost since the time of its creation. Pope Julius I fixed the date of December 25th for the celebration of Christmas in 350, and while a good deal of investigation went into determining that as the actual date of our Saviour’s birth, it also happily coincided, and therefore replaced several pagan festivals that we held at the same time. The Church, in her wisdom, did not forbid the harmless aspects of these celebrations. Indeed, since they inevitably revolved around the concept of light returning after the darkness of winter, many of the traditions were ‘baptised’ so to speak, and since our Lord is the true light that comes into the world, were easily adapted to Christian symbolism. Christmas Day itself was exclusively a Holy Day, marked by attendance at Mass, and feasting. However, the merrymaking spilled over into the following days, eventually becoming the twelve days of Christmas. There was always a gift-giving aspect to Christmas, though usually this associated more with New Year’s Day, or the Epiphany, rather than the Day itself.
Then in 1644, Oliver Cromwell, and his Puritan Parliament, in their wisdom decided that the celebration of Christmas was sinful and outlawed it. The reason given was that, while we are bidden to remember our Lord’s passion and death, we are nowhere commanded to remember His birth. (Eventually, the ban was extended to include all saints’ days, as well as Easter and Whitsun.) It was a remarkably all-encompassing ban. Churches were forbidden from holding any sort of service at all and all businesses were to remain open. The singing of carols, the exchanging of gifts, even the cooking of mince pie, where all banned, under pain of fines or imprisonment. If the day was to be marked at all, it should be by fasting and penance – and the older you were, the more obliged you should feel to undertake the penance.
Needless to say, this particular decree was quite unpopular, and all right-minded people (primarily Catholics and High Church Anglicans) continued to observe the feast of the Christmas in secret. Christmas services were celebrated discretely. Catholicism itself was still outlawed, so generally, the Christmas Masses had to be said in someone’s house, although some Protestant ministers, and Anglican priests defied the ban, and held services in their churches. (Generally, the more sympathetic one was to “popish” traditions, both in the liturgy and in theology, the more inclined they would be to continue to celebrate Christmas.) Nor was it merely the religious aspect of the holiday that was observed, but as far as possible, the traditional celebration of the twelve days of Christmas was kept as well. Folk would sneak along to each other’s homes, brew a bit of punch, feast on mince pies, sing carols, exchange gifts. Generally, they would get away with it too, in spite of the fact that, of themselves, Christmas celebrations are not particularly discrete, and in spite of the fact that there were specially police out, whose job was to sniff out (sometimes literally) any sign of forbidden merriment.
I do find the idea of celebrating Christmas this way rather fascinating. It ties in to my interest in both Catholic and Jacobite history. (Christmas celebrations were re-established by Charles I when he came to the throne.) I can’t help wondering whether the fact that it was forbidden added a bit of spice and excitement to the fun. Below, I am posting a clip of a Christmas carol that would have been sung during this period of history: