Were you aware that Christians once banned Christmas?
From the mid-1500s, Puritan leaders voiced objections to “frivolous additions” to the religious calendars, and Philips Stubbs once wrote in a pamphlet that Christmas was a “wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities.” Puritans had lamented that people, “pretending the memory of Christ, turned Christmas feasts into an extremely forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.”
In 1644, when Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, became the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, he immediately passed an ordinance abolishing the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. An entire generation grew up with Christmas being a period of “solemn humiliation” spent remembering our sins. Christmas returned in 1660 when the religious Protector was removed, and the monarchy was restored. Throughout the ban, people regularly protested.
When Puritans sailed from England in 1620 and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of the religious freedoms they demanded was the right to ban Christmas. The Puritan political leaders kept their shops and schools open, but churches closed on Christmas by calling it “Foolstide.” In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made it a criminal offense to celebrate Christmas publicly. It declared that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like either by forbearing of labor, feasting or any other way” was subject to a sizable fine. Police actually went around looking for people preparing food for a feast.
The Puritans’ main objection to Christmas was based on their strict interpretation of the Bible. They noted that there was no scriptural basis for commemorating Christmas; scripture did not mention a season, let alone a single day, that marked the birth of Jesus. They also wanted to distance Christianity from Saturnalia, a Roman pagan festival of lights that Puritans believed Catholics took over to create Christmas.
Puritans also objected to the way Yuletide was celebrated. 16th-century clergyman Hugh Latimer wrote, “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all 12 months besides.” We have to note that during this time, they did not celebrate Advent, but 12 days starting on Christmas until Epiphany.
However, the lasting effect of the ban on Christmas is its commercialization. Although the festivities returned once the ban was lifted, the spiritual emphasis of Christmas never found its roots. Various pagan and secular traditions, including caroling, decorating trees, sharing food with neighbors, hanging wreaths, exchanging gifts, and sending greetings to friends, were enfolded in as a part of Christmas traditions.
The question is not about Christianizing or sanitizing Christmas but about celebrating the love of God in Jesus. What makes Christmas a spiritual holiday is our sharing the love of God we have experienced with our neighbors and friends. The joy of friendship and the goodwill of community is to be shared and experienced by all.
Let us celebrate Christmas with joy.