Historical Grinches – The Puritans
In 1533, King Henry VIII of England sought divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This set things in motion that led to a massive religious schism. The king broke ties with the Catholic Church, seized all church property and was declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. To some, the Church of England did not take enough steps away from Catholicism. The Puritans were a sect of English Protestants who wanted to purify the church of all remaining Catholic elements.
After Henry’s death, England experienced more sectarian violence as Catholic Queen Mary I was supplanted by her half-sister, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. After a 44 year reign, she was succeeded by her nephew, James I. King James was the son of Queen Mary I and is most famous for publishing a version of the Bible that had been translated into English.
During this time of tumult, a group known as the Pilgrim Fathers relocated to Holland in search of religious freedom. Fearing that they might lose their English culture in Holland, they arranged to settle in North America at the Plymouth Colony. From their earliest days, their Puritan outlook caused them to see Christmas as more of a pagan hold-over than as a celebration of the birth of Christ. Rather than purify it and make it a more religious observance, they simply dismissed it entirely. Their first Christmas was spent constructing their first building in the New World, totally bypassing any form of observance or celebration of the day. The New England Puritans’ view of Christmas largely held until well into the 19th Century, when it took on a more secular and commercial aspect in popular culture.
After James’ death, his son succeeded him as King Charles I. A realm that had suffered so much turmoil in the back and forth of politics and religion was now subject to a king who believed in the Divine Right of Kings and tried dragging England back into an absolute monarchy reminiscent of medieval times. This put him in strong conflict with the Parliament, which was mainly Puritan. Before long, his extreme views and heavy handed rule led to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles.
While the Puritan Parliament held power, they banned Christmas. Like the Pilgrims, they considered it to be boorish, wasteful, immoral and bearing an unseemly taint of Catholicism. This led to widespread rioting among Royalists and people who missed their yuletide revels.
In fairness, at the time, Christmas was less a religious observance and considerably more like a drunken office party of today or the Saturnalia of ancient Rome. The tradition of a Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason was reported as follows:
[I]n the feaste of Christmas, there was in the kinges house, wheresoeuer hee was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Maister of merry disports, and the like had yee in the house of euery noble man, of honor, or good worshippe, were he spirituall or temporall. Amongst the which the Mayor of London, and eyther of the shiriffes had their seuerall Lordes of Misrule, euer contending without quarrell or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the Beholders. These Lordes beginning their rule on Alhollon Eue [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonlie called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisinges, Maskes and Mummeries, with playing at Cardes for Counters, Nayles and pointes in euery house, more for pastimes then for gaine.
~John Stowe, Survey of London (1603)
Nowadays, we can afford to be a bit more lenient and let those who wish to celebrate Christmas with religious ceremony do so while others indulge in their drunken shenanigans or their pagan traditions.
The Puritans were certainly a product of their times. They were trying to redefine English culture and cast off what they considered to be undesirable remnants of the Middle Ages.
As we’ll see in our next couple of grinches, the Modern Age seems to be replete with groups trying to throw the Baby Jesus out with the bath water. Redefining society from scratch is a recurring theme and a recurring failure.
Thankfully, Christmas survived the Puritans. Wait until you see who comes next!