When Easter and Christmas Were Banned: The Rise of Puritan Beliefs
The Rise of Puratinism
In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a group of orthodox English protestants called Puritans. As a general rule, Puritans felt the reformation had not gone far enough, and wanted to eliminate any reference to Catholic tradition in Britain. After Charles I ascended the throne, England was thrown into a civil war. Puritanism collided with the crown's desire to move the country away from a strict reformation policy. The Parliament had a majority of Puritans, and Charles I was eventually tried on "high treason." Charles I refused to enter a plea, which was interpreted as pro confesso, or an admission of guilt. He was executed on January 30, 1649.
Following the execution of Charles I, England was ruled by a Council of State, headed by Oliver Cromwell and Lord Fairfax. Oliver Cromwell then named himself the Lord Protectorate of England - a monarch in every sense, minus the official title. Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan, and English culture experienced a radical restriction on festivities under his reign.
At the time, Christmas was not a calm holiday of family togetherness (and rampant commercialism). Christmas often involved drunkenness, wild parties, and occasionally violent riots as the tradition of wassailing and mumming were observed. In fact, Christmas of the middle ages resembled a modern Mardi-Gras more than a day celebrating the birth of Christianity's Christ child.
Public Notice Banning Christmas in Boston
Puritan Laws Under Cromwell
Cromwell enforced many laws in England, with penalty of fine, imprisonment, or death for those who would not comply. Some of the laws under Cromwell included:
- Make-up was banned: women found wearing make-up would have their faces forcibly scrubbed.
- Colorful dress was not permitted: women were expected to wear long black dresses with a white head covering, and men wore black clothes and short hair. This is the archetypal fashion associated with American Pilgrims (also Puritans).
- Women caught doing unnecessary work on Sunday could be put in stocks.
- Most sports were banned: boys caught playing football on Sunday could be whipped.
- Christmas was banned: Cromwell's soldiers were sent among the streets to remove food cooking for Christmas dinner, and decorations for Christmas were not allowed.
- All other Christian Holy Days were disallowed, including Easter. In January 1645, a group of ministers declared: "festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued."
A Brief History of Oliver Cromwell
The Banning of Easter in England
In June 1647, the Long Parliament officially declared the end to Easter (and all other Christian Holy Days). The primary reason behind the law was to eliminate all traces of Roman Catholicism in England: the only worship allowed was in church on Sunday, according to the Directory of Public Worship.
Parliament banned Easter, Whitsun (celebrated as Pentecost among the people of the day), and Christmas. As a way to give relief to working servants, laborers, and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month was declared a secular holiday.
The Banning of Holidays in America
Many Puritans fled to the American Colonies under the early reign of Elizabeth I, and Boston was a stronghold on Puritan belief. All Holy Days were banned in Boston, including Christmas and Easter, from 1659-1681. The law stated: "observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings."
In fact, Christmas was not declared a Federal Holiday until 1870 - and Congress was routinely in session on Christmas Day prior to this date. As late as 1869, Boston schoolboys could be expelled for skipping school on Christmas Day. Easter was also considered a heathen holiday and was banned: the only holiday allowed was a somber Thanksgiving Day.
A Modern American Christian Discusses Easter as a Pagan Holiday
Residual Impact of the Puritanical Ban on Easter
Along with Easter, many Puritans rejected the observation of Lent, primarily because they associated it with the Roman Catholic Church doctrine. Many Protestant denominations that descend from Puritans or Anabaptists do not observe Lent, while the "High Churches" (Lutheran, Episcopalian) and Orthodox churches observe the season.
The loss of the Lenten season among modern Protestant churches (primarily in America) is a holdover from the Puritanical dislike of religious Holy Days in general. Many American Christian churches are "rediscovering" the season of Lent and the practice of observing Lent is on the rise among Christians in the United States. In some areas, however, the idea of Lent is entirely rejected as being a Catholic idea, though the Lenten celebration pre-dates the Roman Empire. Lent is one of the earliest Christian Holy Days, and was recorded Iranaus of Lyons (c. 130-C. 200), an early church father.
These historical documents were not available to Puritans, however, and the entire idea of celebrating Holy Days was considered to be associated with Catholicism; thus the entire season of Lent was discarded along with the Easter celebration. While Easter was restored as a religious celebration, Lent was not recouped among some Christian churches. Christian churches (derived from the Anabaptists) that do not typically observe Lent include:
- Plymouth Brethren
Easter (and Christmas) Restored
The law banning Holy Days was lifted in 1681 in Boston. While the law was officially repealed, it took quite a bit longer for Christmas and Easter to become recognized and observed by the local population. Evergreen decorations were forbidden from Puritan meeting-houses, and school remained in session on Christmas Day until the day was declared a Federal Holiday in 1870.
Eventually, Puritanical views toward Easter, Christmas, and other Christian holidays softened. By the late 19th century, nearly every Christian household in America was celebrating Easter and Christmas, which was regarded as a joyful holiday promoting family togetherness.
In England, the restoration of Charles II to the throne re-established the monarchy and the celebration of religious holidays (including Christmas and Easter).