The Ghost of Christmas Past

A blog post by Jemima, Library Graduate Trainee, in which Charles Dickens looks back on the time when Christmas was officially banned in England

The Victorian writer, Charles Dickens, authored the well-loved novel The Christmas Carol whose popularity has not diminished over the centuries. Innumerable adaptations have been produced for both stage and screen since its publication; whilst the characters created by Dickens such as Scrooge and his “catch-phrase” Bah-Humbug! remain deeply embedded in the popular culture which surrounds the celebration of Christmas. Dickens has often been described as the man who invented Christmas and whilst this has been contested, he certainly contributed a great deal to the traditions which surround it in Britain. However, Dickens’ contribution to Christmas does not end here; as well as penning several other Christmas stories Dickens also published various articles on the history of Christmas in England and observations on the traditional ways in which Christmas was celebrated around the world. These can be found in All The Year Round, a literary magazine founded and owned by Dickens. Brunel Library holds every edition published between the year 1869 and 1879 in Special Collections. The range of topics these volumes contain are so diverse and truly fascinating, they are well worth an exploration, whatever your subject.

All the Year Round journal

DIckens’ All the Year Round

In December 1870, All The Year Round included an interesting piece on the prohibition of the celebration of Christmas in the 17th century and the methods, which seem ridiculous to us now, which the Puritans attempted to enforce this ban. Dickens paints a vivid picture of the general unrest, the riots and the acts of rebellion and cleverly satirises the entire situation in the way he is famed for. To give some background to the 20 years in which Christmas was banished from the calendar; the first half of 17th century England was ruled by a Puritan parliament, headed by Oliver Cromwell, who put huge amounts of time and effort into reforming the moral and spiritual character of the country. The festival of Christmas came under their firing line as it was not seen as a Christian or religious festival for two main reasons. Firstly, it was a time of feasting, drinking and extravagance – all of these things were looked down upon by Puritans who advocated fasting and sobriety. Secondly, Christmas was a surviving Catholic festival and the Catholic Church was highly unpopular and viewed as a heretical strain of Christianity by the Puritans. As the Puritans could find no Biblical instruction that Christ’s birth be celebrated and as the celebrations themselves were seen as totally incongruent with Christian morality, the Puritan parliament felt no scruple in abolishing Christmas in 1642 and ordering that it should instead be “observed as a day of fasting and of humiliation.” (Dickens, All the Year Round Vol. 5, December 1870 p. 101).

All the Year RoundDickens highlights the absolute absurdity of the situation in his description of what measures the Puritans would take to enforce this ban and what actions they would consider as breaching their legislation. He writes that on Christmas day officials would search the entire city of London, looking for “superstitious pies and porridge, ransacking pots, robbing ovens, and stripping spits” (ibid.) believing that these things were wicked and against Christianity. “Holly, ivy, mistletoe, bay and rosemary were accounted branches of superstition. To roast a sirloin of beef, to touch a collar of brawn, to bake a pie, to put a plum in a pottage-pot, to burn a big candle, or to lay one log more upon the fire for Christmas’ sake was enough to make a man be suspected and taken for a Christian and punished accordingly.” (Dickens, All the Year Round Vol. 5, December 1870, p. 104). Not only were the traditional, secular means of celebrating Christmas prohibited, but religious observances were equally unacceptable. All churches were ordered to close over Christmas and anyone who tried to preach or give a sermon would be served with an arrest warrant. Despite the strict enforcements behind Parliament’s Christmas ban, year after year the people of England would find a way to celebrate and make merry one way or another. This rebellion could be small and personal and consist of making a Christmas pudding or singing a carol. On the other hand there were often larger, public rebellions. Riots would break out and mobs would form and attack the officials working for the Puritan parliament. Charles Dickens describes an incident in 1647 involving forbidden festive decorations and how they were fiercely fought for by the people in the local area. He tells us that Cornhill conduit had been dressed in evergreens and holly and ivy and rosemary and bays which were set on top of the tall building. The city marshall and his men were set to pull down the decorations, but the decorated building was defended by local lads, who attacked the marshall and caused his men to flee for their lives. On receiving report of this, the magistrate was scandalised and went down himself on his horse but met with the same fate. The yelling mobs scared his horse and it galloped away with him still mounted looking very undignified. Although some were seized and sent to prison for the day, there was still a feeling of triumph as the Christmas decorations remained upon the building. (Dickens, All the Year Round Vol 5, December 1870 p. 101).

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