I’ve gone slightly out of my lane here by talking about some far more recent history. But in this post I originally wrote for Christian Today (I post the unedited version here) I explore another time that Christmas was ‘cancelled’, and consider what lessons we could possibly learn for today…
Is Christmas cancelled? It certainly doesn’t feel like ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ But then it’s hardly felt like the most wonderful year.
As our country limps towards the end of a year we’d seemingly all rather forget, many had been hoping that Christmas would offer a bit of relief. Back in September, with a note of confidence the PM, Boris Johnson, had boldly stated that life could be “back to normal by Christmas… we are aiming for that, we are driving for that.”
But ‘normal’ is clearly a long way off, and this Christmas will be anything but. There is a relaxation of current Covid regulations, allowing some limited mixing of households on Christmas Day, but the mood music around the festive season is sombre. Cases are rising, new lockdowns are beginning and many are unable to celebrate with family members. For many across the country, Christmas feels cancelled.
But this isn’t the first time the festive season has failed to deliver after a long and uncomfortable year…
When ‘Cromwell’ Cancelled Christmases
By any definition, 1645 was miserable. England was several years into a bloody civil war, as the Parliamentarians fought the Royalists in a bitter struggle. In mid-June, Parliamentary forces, led by Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, had effectively crushed the Royalist army at the Battle of Naseby in Northamptonshire. The King’s army had been decimated, and morale in the Royalist camp was at rock bottom. The fighting continued across the country for the rest of the year, and casualties were high. The nation was in a sad state, torn apart by this widespread conflict; there was little to look forward to.
As the year drew to a close, perhaps we’d think the nation could at least look to Christmas for a little relief. Perhaps we have a vision of a seventeenth-century version of the 1914 Christmas Truce of the First World War. But it was not to be. In 1645 Christmas was well and truly cancelled: Christmas was illegal.
It’s often said that Cromwell cancelled Christmas, and the fear is Boris has done the same. The reality is slightly less poetic. Since the late 1500s the Puritans had opposed the celebration of Christmas, their chief concerns being that Christmas festivities were wasteful and encouraged immoral activities. As the Puritans’ influence in English public life increased, they were able to suggest legislation that followed through on their convictions. In 1644 Parliament passed an ordinance abolishing Christmas, Easter and Whitsun as feast days. In January 1645 Parliament passed a Directory for Public Worship that stated such days ought to be spent instead in quiet contemplation. 1656 saw further legislation as Sunday was made the only legally observable holy day. Shops and markets were explicitly told to stay open on December 25th. From 1644-1660, including during all of Cromwell’s years as Lord Protector (1653-1658), Christmas was illegal. So that miserable December of 1645 came and went without the respite of Christmas celebrations.
Covid’s Cancelled Christmas
Christmas might not be illegal this year, but the usual festive activities certainly are. The office party moved to Zoom, the carol services are streamed on Youtube. Christmas gatherings for some are possible, but only with strict limitations.
Christmas, as we know it, is cancelled. But maybe that’s not all so bad?
The Puritan ban on Christmas was extreme, but it came from a heart of faith. They might have taken things further than we would, but they acted from a desire to see the nation strip back the parties and the pageantry and remember what all the fuss was really about.
Christmas is looking pretty stripped back this year. But maybe, rather than fixating on the misery of cancelled plans, we could reorient our own attention. Our modern, British version of Christmas might be cancelled. But Christmas itself is far from cancelled, and in a world in desperate need of good news, isn’t that the best news?
Christmas is coming, because Christ has come. Over two-thousand years ago, the One that placed the stars in the night sky was born in the humblest of settings. The One who set creation in motion was born to a young, frightened couple in a far flung corner of the Roman Empire. Christmas has been transformed into many things over the years, but it has never become more than it was at that first Christmas. Hope was born. Not a medical treatment that promises ‘normal life’ in a year, or an easing of restrictions that offers temporary respite from miserable lockdowns, but hope of a real life. Hope of a better life.
Christmas might feel cancelled this year, and when we wake up on Boxing Day to the miserable news of the latest death toll, it might not feel like anything has changed. But as dawn broke the day after that first Christmas, and two sleep deprived young parents gazed down at the wailing face of their new baby, they knew Christ had come. God’s promises of salvation were being fulfilled; His faithfulness was on display in the frail form of a newborn human being. Christmas can never be cancelled, because Christ has come. So this year, amidst the confusion, fear and even misery of a cancelled festive season, cling to that. Cling to the truth that Cromwell couldn’t cancel Christmas, and neither can Covid. Christmas continues because Christ has come.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.“
Once again, the CT article is available here.