The Story Of When Britain Banned Christmas For 12 Years

Think religious fanaticism only happens overseas?
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Think religious fanaticism only happens overseas?

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It was around the year 2000, back in the good old pre Arab spring days when you had to go to Afghanistan to find some A grade religious mania that I remember hearing a report about a football game between Kabul and Kandahar FCs being interrupted by the local police. They staged a pitch invasion mid-game in order to publicly flog and beat the players on account of their scandalously short shorts which, being above the knee, were clearly an immediate and grave threat to public morality. It being Afghanistan there weren't any women allowed in the crowd anyway so I can only conclude the Taliban were convinced that the sight of forty four hairy kneecaps flashing in unison was so startlingly homo-erotic that all the mujahedeen watching were on the verge of losing their shit and going totally gay for each other - classic football fan behaviour.

At the time news was constantly filtering out of the latest bizarre Taliban law to be imposed, like men being fined for trimming their beards and the banning of supremely inoffensive hobbies like kite flying and pigeon fancying - not to mention the whole pathological hatred of women being enshrined in legislation thing.

The idea of a whole country being run by religious zealots, imposing their dour, joyless world view on an entire people seems incredible and we like to think it couldn’t happen here as we’re all far too sensible. It has however, already happened here in fact, less than four hundred years ago. Luckily in our case, it was exactly that joylessness which proved the fanatics' undoing.

Britain became the first European state to do away with their monarchy since Ancient Rome when Charles I was beheaded after a bitter civil war. He had brought it in on himself a little bit after deciding he was God's personal representative in Britain - a great example of the perils of believing your own hype. When people pointed out that he probably wasn't the second coming he tended to respond by having their ears cut off and his insistence that everyone in the country "loan" him most of their money didn't go down well either, meaning that he initially faced a broad range of opponents. As is often the case with civil wars and protest movements, Syria being a case in point, it tends to be the small but well organised groups of fanatics who gradually take over a good cause and turn it to their own ends - which is exactly how the Puritans achieved a significant role in the Republic of Britain by 1647.

These guys took their bibles seriously. And I mean very seriously. One thing that had always irked them was the bible’s complete lack of a date of birth for Jesus. They were all too aware that the 25th December was actually the date of old pagan midwinter festivals of rebirth that had been brazenly co-opted by the early Catholic Church because who doesn't like presents?

Puritans don't like presents. These dour, serious men felt that Christmas was a sinful time of loose morals, drinking and gluttony, distracting the common people from their role in life, which was to work hard, pay their taxes and spend a lot of time contemplating eternal damnation.

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By June 1647 they had the power to do something about it. Parliament passed an actual law banning both Christmas and Easter and prohibiting any celebration of them. All shops and businesses were instructed to remain open so the workers could spend their day in useful labour rather than idle sloth.

Needless to say this was not a popular move. The common people resolved to ignore it as best they could. In the countryside that was easy enough but the towns were garrisoned by Parliament's soldiers who received orders to enforce the new laws. Tension built up over the next few months and reached boiling point on Christmas Day. There was rioting in the streets of London, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds. In Canterbury feelings reached such a pitch that the riots turned into a full-scale rebellion with parliament's forces ejected from the city and the deeply unpopular local Puritan preacher narrowly escaping a lynching. Inspired by the brief uprisings, the civil war broke out anew a few months later as people realised they did not like the direction their society was going and made a stand against it.

Parliament was protected by Oliver Cromwell, the ruthlessly efficient commander of a ruthlessly efficient army. The riots and rebellions were quickly crushed. Christmas continued to be banned for the next 12 long years. But while they continued to control the country, by attacking something as innocent and beloved as Christmas the puritans had spectacularly failed to win over hearts and minds - the notion we hear so much about in modern warfare. The ban came to symbolise everything wrong with the regime and the joyless vision of life under Puritanism. It was never accepted and became a source of constant strife. Soon after Cromwell's death the government collapsed into disarray. Charles I's son was invited back from exile to become Charles II. While not a particularly good king, he was a popular one and went down in history as "the merry monarch" precisely because he brought back and enjoyed what the common people wanted - Christmas and all the other festivities and celebrations that have always done so much to brighten people's lives. You could say that Christmas saved Britain from fundamentalism - and that's worth celebrating even if its not Jesus' actual birthday.