Leah is a biochemist, mother, and writer who has been publishing articles online for years. She enjoys researching historical topics.
What Is Puritanism?
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 because 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.
What Christmas Used to Be Like
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.
Puritan Laws Under Cromwell
Cromwell enforced many laws in England, with penalties of fines, 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."
Banning 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.
Banning 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.
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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 by Iranaus of Lyons (c. 130-C. 200), an early church father.
However, these historical documents were not available to Puritans, and the 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).
Sources and Further Reading
- When Massachusetts Banned Christmas - HISTORY
Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch had nothing on the 17th-century Puritans, who actually banned the public celebration of Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for an entire generation.
- A Summary of Oliver Cromwell – KS3 History Revision | BBC Bitesize
Learn and revise about Oliver Cromwell with BBC Bitesize KS3 History. Should he be seen as the Lord Protector of England or as a cruel harsh dictator?
- Christmas: Surprising Story of the Holiday in America | Time
Christmas is not technically a national holiday in the U.S., but it played an important role in shaping the history of the nation.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 30, 2018:
Thank you for the observation, Howard. I updated the article to correct the paragraph in question.
Howard on March 30, 2018:
Just wanted to observe that Whitsun was never a pagan holiday, although it often fell close to Beltane, which was.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 11, 2018:
I can't imagine such an austere lifestyle, Shirley. The puritanical era must have been rather dull. I far prefer a more joy filled existence!
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 10, 2014:
Our winters are so long here (in Western NY) that any and all celebrations are most welcome! I can only imagine how long winters in Scotland must be!
Silver Fish from Edinburgh Scotland on April 21, 2014:
Which is why New Year became such a big thing in Scotland- midwinter had to be celebrated somehow!!
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on April 21, 2014:
Wow, that is fascinating, Silver Fish! I didn't realize it was banned in Scotland!
Silver Fish from Edinburgh Scotland on April 13, 2014:
Great hub. Christmas was also banned in Scotland for almost 400 years, and only became a public holiday in 1958.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 20, 2012:
I agree with the overcommercialization, mslibra - everything from Christmas to Valentine's Day have become huge shopping holidays. Some Christians in the USA do not practice Christmas in its current form, due to the overwhelming secular and pagan influences. Other Christians enjoy the holidays and simply place less focus on the materialistic side of the season.
I think it is all in great fun and we enjoy the holiday seasons, but we try to keep the materialism from getting out of hand. We have two young sons who have many doting relatives - we don't want them to think the main point of Christmas is getting presents and spending money.
mslibra on December 20, 2012:
Enjoyed learning all of this. And good to know 'why' the Puritans believed what they did. Hurray for Charles II, but I think both holy days have been overcommercialized.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 11, 2011:
One of my friends was wondering why so many American churches don't celebrate Lent, so I did a little research on the subject. No Christmas or Easter: Cromwell was definitely a spoilsport!
Jane Bovary from The Fatal Shore on March 11, 2011:
Five shillings was an awful lot of money in those days. Thanks for this very interesting piece of history leahlefler.
Cromwell was such a spoilsport..