The history of Christmas part 3: From day to night ~ the Tudor and Cromwellian Christmases

In a Tudor household

By the time the House of Tudor took the English throne in 1485, Christmas was a big event in the calendar, and in the life of British people. Everyone was expected to stop their daily life and celebrate for the 12 days of Christmas. In 1541, Henry VIII banned all sports on Christmas Day except archery, to encourage people to focus on Christmas. In 1551 his son Edward VI, passed a law that everybody should walk to church to attend the services.

Feasting was an important part of Christmas day for every household, and with the manorial system across the country people dined on long trestle tables in the lord of the manor’s hall, or with the farmers they worked for, large gatherings were the norm. Turkeys were already in Britain, they had been brought to Europe from their native America in 1519, and sprouts appeared on record in festive cookery in 1587.

In a Cromwellian household

But then came the English Civil War, in the 1600s, commonly known as a battle between King and Parliament, it was equally a battle between moderate and radicle puritan Christians. As the Civil War progressed those that had begun the war, angered by the King’s desire to fight battles against other Puritan states while he defended Catholics and charged his people taxes to fight the wars they disagreed with, saw the tide turn. They had not begun the war because of religion, but those with radicle beliefs gradually took over Parliament, and in the end they arrested and disposed of anyone who disagreed with their extreme point of view. Over indulgences were frowned on, theatres were told to close, saints’ days were no long holidays and any form of recognition of pagan beliefs or religious images were frowned on and then finally banned by law.

In 1644 it was Christmas’s turn to come under Cromwell’s power. Any celebration of Christmas was banned by law. Cromwell called Christmas ‘an extraeme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.’ By law, Christmas was a work day, all merchants had to open for business by law, there were no church services – unless the day fell on a Sunday. Carols were forbidden and anyone caught cooking Christmas foods or singing Carols might be fined, or worse.

When King Charles II was restored to the thrown in 1660 these laws were reverted, but even so Britain had become used to a less raucous, extreme celebration.

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The history of Christmas Part 1: The Roman Saturnalia festival

I thought I’d share a few history facts about Christmas in lead up to the big day this week …

Most people know that the Christian Christmas celebration of Christ’s birth aligns purposefully with the old pagan winter solstice festival recognising the shortest day of the year in the United Kingdom. If you don’t know, though, the pagan period of feasting and celebration was rebranded by the early church because people were unlikely to welcome being told to stop the pattern of celebrating at this time of year.

Less people know about the Roman festival that also occurred in December and also influenced our experience of Christmas today. The Roman festival of Saturnalia was on December 17 of the Julian Calendar, not the Georgian Calendar that we use to count years today. This festival was brought to Britain in 43BC when the Romans invaded, and as Roman life became the way of British life over the years, so their traditions and deities merged with the pagan deities already celebrated.

Saturnalia celebrated the Roman deity Saturn. As we all know, the Romans knew how to throw a party. In towns Saturnalia celebrations began with a sacrifice in the Forum, an area for gathering that was the heart of the Roman town. The day would include feasting and even gift-giving, long parties, games, gambling and a carnival atmosphere. This would have merged with pagan celebrations in British traditions and formed the habits of celebration that went on to be adopted by the Christian church.

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