By Jeff Westover
As Martin Luther ushered in the Reformation, celebrations steeped in pagan rituals and holidays featuring religious feasts and riotous behavior were banned. In some places, such as Scotland in 1583, Christmas observance was outlawed altogether.
As the political landscape in England changed, and those of Puritan ideals came to power, the very acts of even personal celebration were deemed illegal. Carols were labeled as profane, and churches were locked even for the clergy to prevent festivities of the past to be renewed on traditional dates.
Such harsh measures indeed seem cruel. But it must be understood that the thinking of the time was that Christmas was not viewed as a Christian event. It was viewed as a festival with pagan roots and to abolish it meant turning away from anything associated with it.
But when the monarchy returned to power in 1660, led by Charles II, Christmas celebration was again legitimized. The popular sentiment of the time was expressed in this verse:
Now thanks to God for Charles' return,
Whose absence made old Christmas mourn;
For then we scarcely did it know,
Whether it Christmas were or no.
While much of the populace was inclined to favor Christmas celebration, the generations of Puritan rule made the comeback of Christmas a more conservative celebration. While the legislative branch of society condoned Christmas, the clergy remained lodged in resistance. The weight they carried amongst members of society was great, and few took to the ways of Christmas past.
In succeeding generations up to the 19th century, Christmas struggled to get time and attention. By combination of a clergy which frowned on Christmas celebration and economic realities that made it impractical, the holiday that many wished it would be just never found the seeming universal popularity that it once enjoyed.
It must be noted that the England described by Dickens was not all that exaggerated. Scrooge may have been a fictional character but his attitudes were based in fact. These were terrible economic times and the budding Industrial Revolution turned minds to work and not to holidays or the celebrations of them. Families of workers struggled mightily to make ends meet, working seven days a week and enduring horrific working conditions. It was an era of child labor and success was measured by the amount of work accomplished and money earned.
How much had things changed? In 1761, the Bank of England closed for 47 holidays over the course of a year. By 1834, it closed for only four. Employees of this era considered themselves fortunate to get even a half day off for Christmas observance. For Scrooge to give Bob Cratchit a full day for Christmas was generous indeed!
The Puritan era did not kill Christmas. But it came close. The embers of Christmas celebration still glowed for many, and with them were sown the seeds for a Christmas comeback in the Victorian era still to come.