By Pamela Roller

I'm writing this with my box of tissues close by, fighting a nasty head cold. In spite of my sneezing and sniffling, however, I'm really pumped about Christmas. It's my all-time favorite time of year. I get as excited as a little kid.

Was Christmas exciting 400 years ago? Imagine, no new laptops under the tree, no Kindles, iPods, books by fabulous authors, nor the latest in kitchen gadgets. No new car in the driveway with a huge red bow (not that I ever got one of those), no inflatable snowmen in the yard or netted lights around the bushes. Just what did people give as gifts four centuries ago? How did they celebrate? How did they decorate?

And can you imagine Christmas being banned? Let's go back to 17th century England to see what happened.

Through the early 1600s, December 25 was a holy day (holiday), celebrating the birth of Christ. Shops and offices were closed, and people attended special services at church. This day marked the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and over the next eleven days, people went to more church services, and businesses and shops were open for shorter hours. Sounds tame, right? Read on.

Families decorated their homes with ivy and holly and rosemary. Just inside the threshold of a house was hung a woven bough, in the middle of which was placed a small effigy of the Christ child or the holy family, and was blessed by the local priest. Those who visited the house during the Twelve Days of Christmas showed they brought only goodwill with them by a symbolic embrace under this holy bough (this became the hanging of mistletoe in Victorian times). In the spirit of "keeping up with the Joneses," families vied with each other to decorate their boughs more elaborately with gilded nuts, small apples, colorful ribbons and the like.

Where they lived and how much free time and money they could spend determined their degrees of celebrating. Visiting friends and family, eating and drinking, and exchanging presents was the norm. The richer folk gave "boxes" of money to servants, the poor, and various tradesmen. St. Nicholas was not one who gave children presents as he does today, but rather was considered a sort of Master of Ceremonies for community and private celebrations.

And folks got wild during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

People made special food and drink, back then filling up on plum pudding, minced pies, turkey, peacock, goose, swan and beef. Taverns sold huge quantities of their specially brewed Christmas ale. These days were a deliberately permissive period of singing and dancing, eating and drinking to gluttonous bliss, sitting around, playing games, gambling, getting drunk, and having a whole lot of sex. Twelfth night, the last night of the celebration, was marked by even more feasting and frivolous fun.

Alas, toward the mid 1600s, many people, in particular the more Godly, frowned upon this type of Christmas celebration. Too extravagant, they said, too disorderly. And far too immoral. Moreover, Christ’s mass, as they saw Christmas, was encouraged by the Catholic Church and had no biblical justification. Thus, they sought to ban the celebration of Christmas, which they saw as Popish and sinful. The new buzzword was "Christ-tide," where December 25 would be a day of fasting and spending most of the day in worship. Parliament, increasingly supporting Puritan Protestant Oliver Cromwell, ordered people to remember in humiliation those who had, in the past, turned the day into sinful gluttony, "giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights." From about 1647 to 1660—during Cromwell's rule—no one in Great Britain was allowed to celebrate Christmas. Shops were ordered to remain open on December 25, and it was against the law to eat mincemeat pie.

However, traditions are hard to kill, and many people continued to celebrate. Secret religious services marking the birth of Christ continued to be held on December 25. This led to a Christmas civil war, so to speak, in the late 1640s that consisted of sometimes violent confrontations to force shops and businesses to stay open and to prevent public celebrations.

The defeat of Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II led to declaring all legislation of banning the celebration of Christmas null and void. The religious and secular elements of the full Twelve Days of Christmas was restored.

Eat, drink and be merry. Happy holidays!

Pamela Roller is the author of On Silent Wings, a gothic historical romance set in Restoration England. Visit her website at
©Pamela Roller


  1. Nightingale // December 21, 2007 at 2:04 PM  

    I loved the article Pam. As a Restoration-a-phile, of course I would. It was very informative and entertaining. Boo Oliver Cromwell. -- An American Cavalier, 400 years too late.

  2. Beth Trissel // December 21, 2007 at 4:23 PM  

    I loved your post, Pam. Always thought it was that dratted Cromwell who canceled Christmas! I'm a king's man (woman) myself.
    Go Caveliers!

  3. Mona Risk // December 22, 2007 at 9:38 PM  

    Thank you, Pam, for such a thorough and entertaining history of Christmas celebration.

  4. Nightingale // December 23, 2007 at 8:24 PM  

    Movies for the Restoration/ECW minded:

    The Libertine (Johnny Depp)10 stars.
    A Stage Beauty
    The Last King
    And if you can find it, Forever Amber.

  5. Mary Marvella // December 23, 2007 at 11:54 PM  

    Funny, Pam, I thought of Linda when I read this! I guess you know why. Very interesting information!