When Cromwell canceled Christmas

By Bob Hicks

It wasn’t just the theater that merry King Charles II restored when he reclaimed the British throne for royalty in 1661. He brought back Christmas, too.

Robert Walker, Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, ca. 1649. National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikimedia Commons.Many Scatterers undoubtedly know that when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans took over power in England in 1645, not all that long after William Shakespeare’s heydey, they put a quick end to all that decadent theatrical nonsense (but apparently not, as the accompanying portrait of Cromwell reveals, to decadent ribbons and bows).

In 1644, Cromwell forced a bill through Parliament banning all Christmas celebrations, too: they were too popish, he proclaimed darkly, and besides, people shouldn’t be having that much fun. As Alan Rickman so brilliantly snarled as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: “And call off Christmas!”

The ban lasted, with a lot of inevitable Prohibition-style lawbreaking (imagine a Christmas speakeasy, where daredevil young rebels spend top dollar for a black-market figgy pudding), until 1660, two years after Cromwell’s death.

What England finally dropped, the colonies picked up: Christmas celebrations were banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681, laying very early groundwork for the 20th century banishments of work by the likes of William Faulkner, Conrad Aiken, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht and Ernest Hemingway. Where those gentlemen stood on the issue of Christmas, we’re not sure, but their publishers tended to give three cheers when their books gained the Banned in Boston seal of disapproval, which did wonders for sales everywhere else.

Well, we’ve always had our zealots.

As usual during times of ascendant zealotry, both metaphor and literalism ran wild. Take the mincemeat pie — please. As Lorna J. Sass reports in her wonderful 1981 book Christmas Feasts from History, which Mr. Scatter pulls out every year about this time,

Minced pies were the subject of much controversy during the 17th century. They were traditionally baked in rectangular coffins (as pie shells were then called), a shape meant to symbolize either the creche or Christ’s sepulcher. The spices within the pie were thought to represent the gifts of the Magi. Objecting vehemently to these associations, the Puritans called the serving of minced pies on Christmas “an abomination, idolatry, superstition and popish observance,” and actually outlawed them. To solve the problem, the English renamed these coffins “Christmas Pies,” and went right along mincing the ingredients for the filling.

There is hope in that popular reaction to official lunacy — and hope, after all, is really what this season is about, isn’t it? Whether you like to think of it as Saturnalia or winter solstice or shopping madness or high holy days or simply a season for general good cheer, hopefulness is a good thing. There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief.

Sometimes what you hope for is a simple return to normalcy. Here at Art Scatter World Headquarters, we’re celebrating that. After losing 16 pounds and nine days of schooling, Oscar/Dennis has risen from his deathbed and reclaimed his rightful place in the teen-age order of things (last night’s tortilla melt with cheese, salami and refried beans pretty much signaled that things were getting back to normal). Today Mrs. Scatter and Felix/Martha scarpered off to the Olympic Peninsula to bring back both the oysters and the mother-in-law. Mr. Scatter is even now sipping on a decent cheapish pinot noir from the underrated Oregon vintage of 2006 (it’s from Artisanal Wine Cellars). And somewhere in the background, the sweet nonsense of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie is blaring on the television screen.

To all of our readers, whatever your beliefs: Merry Christmas. Celebrate it as you won’t or you will. But may the zealots never again take it away from us.


ILLUSTRATION: Robert Walker, Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, ca. 1649. National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikimedia Commons.