Christmas and the Puritans

Everyone knows that the Calvinist-inspired group within the Church of England hated Christmas and anything fun. Why else wear plain black clothes and execute the king? (OK, maybe not entirely the last bit. Charles I wasn’t the sharpest at reading the political winds or listening to warnings about “this might not be a good time to do that.”)

Most famously, Oliver Cromwell and his associates in the colonies banned Christmas. No one could eat holiday foods, or sing Christmas carols, or have anything decorations like holly or ivy. People most certainly dared not enjoy themselves in any way. Why? Because the Puritans hated fun, and the Church of England, and anything they deemed to be immoral. So no plum pudding, Yule log, or eggnog.

*wags paw back and forth* Actually, if you look at some of the things associated with the popular celebrations of Christmas from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, you might start to agree with Cromwell and Co. that Christ had faded out of Christmas. And in truth, the Puritans had no objection to worship on the holy day, or reading the Scriptures and singing hymns and Psalms [the same thing in some sub-groups] appropriate to the day, and abstaining from work if one were worshipping in private. It was the twelve and more days of drunken, boisterous gluttony and waste, and public disorder that included brawls between towns and destruction of property that they objected to. And anything that resembled Catholic practices and superstitions.

Awareness of the pagan roots of some Christmas traditions also influenced the bans. “Popery” had co-opted some things that the purifiers of the faith deemed suspect at best and pure paganism otherwise. Readings that included texts not found in the Bible, stories about the childhood of the Virgin, holly and ivy and mistletoe… pouring cider on the roots of apple trees to encourage them to bear well in the coming year, the Yule log, that sort of thing smacked of non-Christian roots. The Puritans pointed to admonitions in the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles about not bowing to pagan customs, and to not tempting the weaker brothers and sisters. Some people could have a Yule log without being drawn into paganism, but others could not. Therefore it was better to do away with the non-religious aspects of the day, lest the weak be led into temptation and stumble.

Another doctrine also overlapped with concerns about public disorder and morality. According to some Puritan theologians, all days were equally holy, with the Sabbath set aside for rest and worship. If Christmas did not fall on the Sabbath, than it was just another day for labor and prayer. People were to engage in their spiritual as well as worldly vocations, pray, improve themselves and assist their neighbors, and do good works. This should happen every day, not just on designated “holidays.”

As you can imagine, the average non-Puritan responded about the way you’d expect, with protests, ignoring orders, riots, partying in private, and wassailing trees on the sly. After all, governments came and went, but if the trees and fields failed to bear fruit… After the end of the Commonwealth, the anti-Christmas laws were set aside in England, although New England continued to frown on such frivolous excesses well into the 1800s. Folklore collectors and music collectors still mourn what may have been lost in the transition from Catholic to Anglican to Catholic to Anglican to Puritan to Anglican (and later Methodist et al.), because the Church of England tightened up on what sorts of things were allowed during worship and around the holy days.

Now? Some people excoriate the “commercialization of Christmas,” others revel in the lights, parties, shopping, and other festivities. Some keep a healthy space between Yule and the Mass of Christ, others go into debt and overindulge in other things.

Me? I’m just sitting around, listening to Medieval and Renaissance Christmas and Advent music, eyeing the goodies piled up around the kitchen, and wondering just what is in (or on) that box that Athena T. Cat keeps trying to unwrap.

10 thoughts on “Christmas and the Puritans

  1. Just to create mischief, the Puritan efforts sounded pre-destined to fail because of their overweening pride. 🙂

    A lot of of the elements co-opted had the new Christian heritage and explanation taught. Shifting from Saturnalia and midwinter sacrifice to celebrating the Prince of Peace and the coming of an eternal King at Chrustmas, with the Light returning, had its good points. But, man being subject to sin and temptation in a fallen world, indukhence and excess got followed by another sib: someone fell to an older temptation to try ordering them all about.

    What disturbs me more is that the new Puritans, the SJWs, are using every means possible to extirpate the Christian roots and connections to any public holiday or celebration. For what season are we greeting? What Holy Day (contracted to Holiday) is so Happy, and why? Give them each a lump of coal, and watch the horror rise in their eyes at being handed concentrated ‘Global Warming.’

    (Stops growling and stropping claws, puts on some more John Rutter to relax). Time to warm up and be ready to sing hymns and carols of joy. His Birthday is celebrated again.

    … now, what happened to the good port, to toast His Birth? (Rummage in the cellar)

    • John Witherspoon, Cotton Mather, and even John Knox would likely point out to the modern “Puritans” that such confidence in their own rightness and moral purity was a warning, not a confirmation. To paraphrase Cromwell out of context, “I pray thee, by the bowels of Christ, to consider that thou might be wrong!”

    • Thing is, the attempt to order things about was already in progress. Calvinism could not have born the fruit it did in England without previous changes in the western church, previous secular and religious political tensions, and previous teachings by the Catholic church about public ritual. With the focus on Easter Mass, Catholicism had already staked out a claim. The Catholic Church had already started backing certain factions of nobility in the various intensities of discussion about who was fit for secular rule. Where those factions had hugely ticked off the locals, the locals were of course going to look into alternative theologies. Which naturally were going to have a tendency to polarize. (It is hard to explain degree of local ticked offedness for distant historical societies. A New York Times writer, I want to say Ross Douthat, recently tweeted something about wanting the whole of North America rules by a multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy. Think how well that would go down without substantial voluntary conversions by the bulk of the American population.)

      Secondly, modern socialism is probably not best understood as having Calvinism as its sole flavor of significant Christian influence. Yes, there are traits that are definitely from the revivalism movement of early evangelicalism, which was caused by Calvinist influences on the American church. There are also traits that speak to influence by more foreign Christian church elements. By the time socialism was developing into its current form, the American church had mutated into a bunch of denominations that were not established. The established churches that also had an influence on modern socialism were likely foreign ones. You could argue that foreign Protestant churches were established in enough places that we need not consider Catholic and Orthodox influences. If one counts Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc as distinct from Calvinism, I’m not sure there are very many places with a lasting established Calvinist church. My intuition is that specifically Catholic influences can be proven in modern socialism. But all I really know I can show is that foreign established churches, outside of the mainstream American Protestant tradition, probably were also a significant influence.

      • Oh yes, and if you really want to go back to the problems with English popular vs. official Catholic teachings, then the political and economic causes for the Peasants’ War in Germany, both as responses to centralizing tendencies among the various noble factions…

        The roots of socialism can be found in human nature (someone else take care of me/ I want to control people because I know what is best for them) as well as the various flavors of Christianity, and some Jewish off-shoots. The “Social Gospel” versions of it in the US in the early 20th century were an attempt to blend the best of Marxism with Christian teachings and as a protest against the “muscular Christianity” and “Jesus as a businessman” popular teachings.

        I have some personal theories about established churches, government, and economic philosophies, but I don’t have the theological or linguistic chops to pursue the necessary research.

  2. I spent a few days west of the Cascades and shopped a couple of time at the local Trader Joe’s. I was surprised and pleased by the cashiers who enthusiastically wished everyone a Merry Christmas. OTOH, there was nothing like it the two times I was at Costco. OTOH, they were mostly sold out of the Christmas-specific items (barring fancy seasonal foods) and were preparing for a huge furniture sale. (Eh? Who wants to buy furniture in January?)

    And a bit passed on from Instapundit on SJWs and holiday greetings:


    Note to self; when I get the LP-to-MP3 recording setup going, The Messiah should be high on the list.

  3. Good points all, and Cromwell et al were trying to do the whole absolute power thing… The Puritans were a ‘tad’ different, but if you read the histories of northeast, there was a ‘lot’ going on behind the scenes… 🙂

    • Oh yes. There is no simple, one-volume “Quick History of Reformed Faiths in England and Her Colonies.” We’d probably be lucky to get by with three volumes.

  4. Lots of important points to consider, but first, a little more spiked cider will make the nap easier. I could use the non-medical muscle relaxant, now.

    • Dang, meant app. If the arm relaxes a bit more, it’s easier to use my Kindle app to finish reading Stamme and Rimworld – Militia Up. Better use for some relaxation time. Ahem. My story, anyway.

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