“Bah, humbug!” When we hear these words, we immediately think of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dicken’s protagonist in A Christmas Carol, first published in London during 1843. Scrooge was a miserly workaholic who hated Christmas: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” However, three Christmas ghosts changed his heart and Scrooge became a joyful man who merrily celebrated Christmas with his family and friends.
But Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t the first ‘Scrooge.’ The English Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries were against Christmas celebrations. More accurately, these Reformed Christians were against any Christian festivals that were not spent in respectful contemplation.
Who were the Puritans? The English reformation was ushered in by King Henry VIII (1491-1547), not by theological disagreements that resulted in wars and divisions, but through his desire to divorce and remarry. This odd reason for reforming forced the Church of England to balance both Catholic and Protestant theology to keep the peace, a practice still maintained within the modern Church of England.
Early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), a movement within the Church of England began to purify the church of any ‘popish’ practices. Puritans sought to fully reform the Church of England as a Protestant church according to Scriptural doctrine. The label, “Puritan” was actually a derogatory term that implied a “holier than thou” superior attitude.
Journalist H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) wrote, “Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” While his words are widely quoted as apropos to the Puritans who were devout and ascetic, it was historically wrong as Puritans were joyful, playful, and mindful. However, when it came to festivals like Christmas, they frowned upon the mirth and feasting.
As Puritans started gaining control of the English Parliament, they passed laws to limit Christmas festivities. First, an ordinance was passed on 19 December 1643 that treated the mid-winter period, which included Christmas, with solemn humility. Then Christmas was rejected during 1644 when another Parliament ordinance was passed abolishing the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun (Pentecost). In January 1645, Parliament produced a new Directory for Public Worship that made festival days, including Christmas, to be days of respectful contemplation days and not celebrations.
Why did the Puritans abolish Christmas? Festivals were days of excessive feasting and drinking. Debauchery and damaging behaviors went against the ascetic Puritan lifestyle and did not focus on their spiritual significance. Theologically, Puritans uplifted the Sabbath as the only day in Scripture set aside by God for believers to celebrate. To Puritans, festival days diminished the Sabbath. As Richard Greenham (1535-1594) explained, “Our Easter day, our Ascension day, our Whitsuntide is every Lord’s Day.” (Christian History, Issue 89, Winter 2006, page 3).
When Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1653-1658), he worked to enact Parliament legislation that made every Sunday a holy day. This legislation forced shops to stay open on Christmas Day. Soldiers patroled the streets and searched for festive goods and foods. Bah, humbug, indeed!
Cromwell died in 1658 and in 1660, the monarchy was restored with the crowning of King Charles II. Puritan political power then began to wane. Unpopular ordinances against Christmas festivities were repealed. By the time of Charles Dickens, the English Christmas was back to feasting and merriment.
Those who see this anti-Christmas Puritan period as an English matter must examine our Puritan roots to see how it influenced our American society. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a New England Puritan minister who preached in Boston’s North Church, stated: “Can you in your conscience think, that our Holy Saviour is honoured, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn, or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadan?” (Christian History, Issue 41, Vol. XIII, No. 1, page 11). Colonial magistrates in New England also banned the public Christmas celebrations. Bah, humbug! Thankfully, this was also reversed and we can joyfully celebrate the season of Christ’s birth.