A Treasury of Christmas Carols

Christmas Dissolved

Part 1. English Puritanism

Christmas in general was dealt a severe setback in 17th Century England. "Puritans" was the name given in the 16th century to an extreme group of Protestants within the Church of England who thought the English Reformation had not gone far enough in reforming the doctrines and structure of the church; they wanted to purify their national church by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence. In addition, they wanted the Church of England purified of any liturgy, ceremony, or practices which were not found in Scripture. Thus, the name of "Puritans." The Bible was their sole authority, and they believed it applied to every area and level of life.

Attempts by the Puritans to gain concessions from the Crown were fruitless. Ultimately, words led to blows, and blows to war. The monarchy was overthrown, and the Puritans seized power. For those with an interest in historical matters, click here for An Overview of the English Civil War

The Puritans began to make major cultural changes. The first attack against Christmas was struck on September 2, 1642, when the largely Puritan Parliament outlawed the performance of plays – including Christmas pageants and plays. [1] The theatres were closed. Another ordinance of February 11, 1647, would declare all stage players to be rogues, and ordered that all stage galleries, seats and boxes were to be pulled down. Any actor at a future stage play would be publicly whipped, and spectators could be fined five shillings.

Parliament enacted an ordinance on February 15, 1642-43, which included a bill entitled "An Act for the suppression of divers innovations in churches and chapels in and about the worship of God and for the due observation of the Lord’s Day, and the better advancement of preaching God’s Holy Word in all parts of the kingdom." The bill required, inter alia:

That all alters and rails be taken away out of churches and chapels before April 18, 1643, and that the communion-table be fixed in some convenient place in the body of the church. That all tapers, candlesticks, basins, crucifixes, crosses, images, pictures of saints, and superstitious inscriptions in churches or churchyards, be taken away or defaced.

The bill provided an exception for images, pictures or monuments for the dead. Church organs were also moved from many churches. [2]

Shortly thereafter, On September 10, 1643, the Puritans abolished the previous liturgy and its musical accompaniment, especially in cathedrals and college chapels. [3] At the same time, the act abolished all archbishops, bishops, their chancellors and commissaries, and the vicar choral and chorister.

The houses of parliament in England ordered the Westminster Assembly of Divines on October 12, 1643 to turn their attention to the government and worship for the English Church. Most of the Divines [4] were from the ranks of the Puritans who disagreed with the worship and hierarchical practices of the Anglican church. In particular, the ordinance of Parliament which called the Divines together had two specific goals in mind:

  1. set down the biblical patterns of the reformation faith in the areas of liturgy [worship form] and polity [church government], and

  2. defend such reformation distinctives from false aspersions, misconstructions, and attack.

The Assembly opened on Saturday July 1, 1643 in the Abbey Church in Westminster. One of the first items on the agenda was to address the following proposition: "Festival days, vulgarly [commonly] called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued." The debate continued up to Friday, December 22nd, but could not be completed. At that time, one of the Divines made the following proposition: ‘That the Assembly would determine whether there should be any sermon upon Christmas-day:’ However, the Divines decided that it was premature to decide this issue. [5]

Mr. John Lightfoot 

The next question how long the Assembly should adjourn. Some wanted to hold sessions on Christmas-day, but the majority generally thought otherwise; and the Assembly adjourned till "after the fast," that is until Thursday, December 28th. Later that day, however, the city-ministers met together to consult whether or not they should preach on Christmas-day. Among them there was a Mr. Edmund Calamy, [6] from whom we shall hear further, and two other members of the Assembly. When Mr. Calamy began to incline that there should be no sermon on that day, and was like to sway the company that way, Mr. John Lightfoot [7] (photo above left) of the Assembly took him aside, and asked him to consider several points, which they then discussed. Mr. Lightfoot’s arguments persuaded Mr. Calamy to change his mind; and he also prevailed with the company. The city ministers voted to preach on Christmas day, although most stated that they would preach against the superstition that Christ was born on December 25th. A few ministers declined to preach at all. [8]

I have been unable to locate any support for the widely repeated assertion that in 1643, the Parliament officially abolished the celebration of Christmas. [9] That action, however, was not long in coming.

In 1641, the King, at the request of Parliament of January 8, 1641, had ordered a monthly fast, which would be kept on the last Wednesday of each month. [10] As it happened, Christmas fell on the last Wednesday of December, 1644. Parliament was then faced with a dilemma: the feast or the fast. On December 19, 1644, after some debate, Parliament made up its mind and decreed that December 25th was to be observed as a day of fasting and repentance. Parliament wrote, in part:

Whereas some doubts have been raised, whether the next fast shall be celebrated, because it falls on the day which heretofore was usually called the feast of the nativity of our Saviour; the lords and commons in parliament assembled do order and ordain, that public notice be given, that the fast appointed to be kept the last Wednesday in every month ought to be observed, till it be otherwise ordered by both houses; and that this day in particular is to be kept with the more solemn humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights, being contrary to the life which Christ led here on earth, and to the spiritual life of Christ in our souls, for the sanctifying and saving whereof, Christ was pleased both to take a human life, and to lay it down again. [11]

Contemporaries reported that this pronouncement was met with widespread opposition and disturbances throughout England – even including a few Presbyterian ministers. The people did not want their Christmas – however flawed in its observance – to be abolished. [12]

Mr. Edmund Calamy, Rectory of St. Mary, Aldermanbury, preached the following on Christmas Day, 1644, before the House of Lords:

This day is commonly called The Feast of Christ’s nativity, or, Christmas-day; a day that has formerly been much abused to superstition, and profaneness. It is not easy to say, whether the superstition has been greater, or the profaneness…. And truly I think that the superstition and profanation of this day is so rooted into it, as that there is no way to reform it, but by dealing with it as Hezekiah did with the brazen serpent. This year God, by his Providence, has buried this Feast in a Fast, and I hope it will never rise again. [13]

Parliament held sessions on December 25th from 1644 through 1656. [14]

On June 8, 1645, the Parliament abolished the observance of Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide [15], and the Saint’s days. Parliament’s ordnance stated, in part:

Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise notwithstanding.

And that there may be a convenient time allotted for scholars, apprentices, and other servants, for their recreation, be it ordained, that all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, shall, with the leave of their masters, have such convenient reasonable recreation, and relaxation from labour, every second Tuesday in the month throughout the year… [16]

But at Christmas 1645, open rioting occurred when shops were opened on Christmas Day. [17] Routley quoted Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans [Neal, 1, pp 55-56]:

The changing of the festival of Christmas into a fast last winter (e.g., 1644) was not so much taken notice of, because all parties were employed in acts of devotion; but when it returned this year, there appeared a strong propensity in the people to observe it; the shops were generally shut, many Presbyterian ministers preached; in some places the common-prayer was read, and one or two of the sequestered clergy getting into pulpits prayed publicly for the bishops.

Several of the citizens of London, who opened their shops, were abused, and in some places there were riots and insurrections, especially in Canterbury, where the mayor, endeavoring to keep the peace, had his head broke by the populace and was dragged about the streets; the mob broke into diverse houses of the most religious in the town, broke their windows, abused their persons, and threw their goods into the streets, because they exposed them to sale on Christmas Day.

At length, their numbers being increased to above two thousand, they put themselves into a posture of defense against the magistrates, kept guard, stopped passes, examined passengers, and seized .the magazine and arms in the town-hall, and were not dispersed without difficulty. The like disorders were at Ealing, in Middlesex, and in several other counties.

The Parliament was alarmed at these disorders, and therefore commanded all papists and delinquent clergymen to retire without the lines of communication, and punished some of the principal rioters as a terror to the rest, it being apparent that the king's party took advantage of the holy days to try the temper of the people in favour of his release, for during the space of the following twelve years, wherein the festivals were laid aside, there was riot the least tumult on account of the holydays, the observation of Christmas being left as a matter of indifference.

The Puritan Parliament in 1647 and 1652 – again – officially abolished Christmas and other festivals altogether. On June 3, 1647, Parliament passed an order that the feast of the Nativity of Christ could not be celebrated with other holy days. And on December 24, 1652, parliament proclaimed that "no observance shall be hand of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Chyristmas [sic] day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof." [18]

The Flying Eagle, a small gazette, published the following account of the proceedings of Parliament on December 24, 1652:

"The House spent much time this day about the business of the Navy, for settling the affairs at sea; and before they rose, were presented with a terrible remonstrance against Christmas day, grounded upon divine Scriptures, 2 Cor. v. 16; 1 Cor. xv. 14, 17; and in honour of the Lord's Day, grounded upon these Scriptures, John xx. I; Rev. i. 10; Psalm cxviii. 24; Lev. xxiii. 7, 11; Mark xvi. 8; Psalm lxxxiv. 10, in which Christmas is called Anti-Christ's masse, and those Mass-mongers and Papists who observe it, etc. In consequence of which Parliament spent some time in consultation about the abolition of Christmas day, passed orders to that effect, and resolved to sit on the following day, which was commonly called Christmas day." [19]

Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans were determined to outlaw the practice of caroling despite the support for carols by Cromwell’s his friend and supporter, John Milton. [20] Another defender of carol-singing was the Anglican divine, Thomas Warmstry, whose 1648 tract, The Vindication of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ, argued that `Christmasse Kariles, if they be such as are fit for the time, and of holy and sober composures, and used with Christian sobriety and purity, are not unlawful, and may be profitable, if they be sung with grace in the heart'. [21]

Notwithstanding these arguments, Christmas Carols were banned by the Puritans beginning in 1649; only songs from a psalm-book (or psalter) were permitted. [22] As Routley notes, the only "allowed" Christmas carols were those of "holy and sober composers, and used with Christian sobriety and piety…." In short, quoting Edward Bliss Reed, ‘… there is more of the puritan than of the waissailer in their spirit." [23]

Charles W. Jones relates that in England the Puritans could not end customs of Christmas, however stringently legislated against. [24] However, the Puritans caused significant disruptions of traditions. John Evelyn wrote in his diary on 25 December 1652 (and also in 1653): "Christmas Day, no sermon anywhere, no church being permitted to open, so observed it at home." This was a common occurrence; the Puritans wanted to end the public observations of Christmas, but were indifferent to private observations. [25]

The Roundheads were uncompromising; some delighted in holding Parliament on Christmas Day. The following remarks were recorded on the floor of Parliament 25 December 1656:

COL. MATTHEWS: The house is thin, much, I believe, occasioned by the observance of this day. I have a short Bill to prevent the superstition in the future. I desire it to be read.

MR. ROBINSON: I could get no rest all night for the preparations of this foolish day’s solemnity. This renders us in the eyes of the people to be profane. We are, I doubt, returning to Popery.

MAJOR-GENERAL PACKER WITH OTHERS THOUGHT THE BILL ‘WELL-TIMED’: You see how the people keep up these superstitions in your face, stricter in many places than they do the Lord’s Day. One may pass from the Tower to Westminster, and not a shop open nor a creature stirring. [26]

The restoration of the monarchy (1660) also restored Anglicanism, and the Puritan clergy were expelled from the Church of England under the terms of the Act of Uniformity (1662).

Even though Christmas was again observed in England after the Restoration in 1660, carols continued an underground existence for generations primarily in rural England. [27] Almost no new "carols" were published in England during the following 150 years. However, a tradition that strong could not be entirely suppressed. Some carols that were composed included

  • The Wassail Song

  • The Twelve Days of Christmas

  • The Holly and the Ivy

  • Adeste fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful) – from France

  • Les anges dans nos campagnes (Angels We Have Heard on High) – from France

And although Christmas was once again observed in England, the same was not true in Scotland, where the conservatives held sway for nearly three centuries. For more information, see the fascinating article by Amy McNeese, Christmas In Scotland, originally published in the Church of Scotland magazine, Life & Work, and reprinted at the Scottish Christian web site. According to Ms. McNeese, Christmas was not a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.


1. Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Christmas Carol (New York: Avenel Books, 1976), p. 2. Return

2. Daniel Neal, History of the Puritans, Volume 1, pp 445-446 Return

3. G. E. Aylmer, Rebellion of Revolution? England from Civil War to Restoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) Return

4. 'Divines' as they were called in their day because they studied divinity or theology. Return

5. The source for this paragraph and the following paragraph is Chris Coldwell, "The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism," Copyright © 1999 First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett, quoting from the journal of John Lightfoot, "The Whole Works of the Rev. John Lightfoot" (London: 1824). Return

6. Edmund Calamy (1600-1666) was educated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. He was successively bishop's chaplain at Ely, vicar of St. Mary, Swaffham Prior, and then lecturer at Bury St. Edmunds in 1626, where Jeremiah Burroughs was his fellow laborer. Though he was first neutral as to the ceremonies of the English high church, he later strongly opposed the policies of William Laud. In 1639 he was elected to the curacy of St. Mary, Aldermanbury, where he was instrumental in ordaining Christopher Love to the gospel ministry. He was a prominent member of the Westminster Assembly as a presbyterian. In 1662, he was ejected from his pulpit for non-conformity and was briefly imprisoned. In fact, such was the hostility towards the ejected ministers that on one occasion, Calamy went to a worship service at the church where he had pastored; the speaker failed to appear, so Calamy was asked to preach, which he did gladly. For this he was arrested and imprisoned. His last years were spent in quiet retirement. None of his sermons or works have gone into modern printing, although a number of them can be found on the Internet. Calamy preached funeral sermons for Samuel Bolton, Christopher Love, and Simeon Ashe. Source: Soli Deo Gloria Ministries [Link to biographical page broken, 8 January 2004] Return

7. John Lightfoot (1602-1675) later Master of Catherine Hall, Cambridge, and Prebendary of Ely. Routley, p. 120. John Lightfoot was born in 1602, the son of a rector. He was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge. His great love was studying the Hebrew language and Hebrew antiquities. He held several pastorates, accepting one for the main reason that it would give him access to the Hebrew treasures at Sion College in London. In 1643 he was appointed to be one of the members of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, and took active part in the debates. He kept a record of the minutes, which are most helpful in any study of the proceedings of that important body of men. Ordained as a Presbyterian, he bowed to the Act of Uniformity in 1662, and then was quite loose in his adherence to its demands. He died in 1675, leaving behind a large body of work, much of it in Latin. His works were reprinted in 13 volumes in the 19th century, but only the final volume on the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly has been reprinted in this century. Most of his work is devoted to commentary on New Testament books based upon his knowledge of the Talmud and other Hebrew documents. Source: Soli Deo Gloria Ministries [Link to biographical page broken, 8 January 2004]. Also see http://www.kth-linz.ac.at/institute/at/lightfoot/welton01.htm Return

8. See Appendix C, Notes from Neal's History of the Puritans and Certain Puritan Theologians. Return

9. Or that clergymen are imprisoned for preaching on December 25th; that Parish officers at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, are fined for decorating the church with rosemary and bay; and that riots broke out in protest of the banishment. Return

10. And in 1642, on the eve of civil way, Parliament published an ordinance for the more strict observation of the fast, "in order to implore a divine blessing upon the consultations of parliament, and to deprecate the calamities that threatened this nation." Coldwell, quoting Daniel Neil, The History of the Puritans (London, 1837) Return

11. Quoted by Chris Coldwell, "The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism;" and Eric Routley, The English Carol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), page 120-1. Cf. Neal, 1, page 500. Return

12. Routley, page 121, quoting Daniel Neal, History of the Puritans, 1732. [Neal, 1, page 500] Return

13. Quoted by Coldwell, and also by Routley, p. 121. Return

14. The fact that Parliament in England and the Puritans in New England felt it necessary to pass such laws would indicate widespread opposition to the abolition of Christmas. Return

15. Also known as Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of the crucified Jesus. The Christian Church has observed this day as the birthday of the Church. In ancient times, converts were baptized at this time. Return

16. Quoted by Coldwell. Return

17. Routley, page 122. Neal, Volume 2, pp 55-56. Return

18. Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Christmas Carol, p. 2. Return

19. Quoted by Washington Irving, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), Note C. This quotation followed a passage in the sketch "Christmas Day" which described the sermon at church services that morning:

The parson gave us a most erudite sermon on the rites and ceremonies of Christmas, and the propriety of observing it not merely as a day of thanksgiving, but of rejoicing; supporting the correctness of his opinions by the earliest usages of the Church, and enforcing them by the authorities of Theophilus of Cesarea, St. Cyprian, St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and a cloud more of Saints and Fathers, from whom he made copious quotations. I was a little at a loss to perceive the necessity of such a mighty array of forces to maintain a point which no one present seemed inclined to dispute; but I soon found that the good man had a legion of ideal adversaries to contend with; having, in the course of his researches on the subject of Christmas, got completely embroiled in the sectarian controversies of the Revolution, when the Puritans made such a fierce assault upon the ceremonies of the Church, and poor old Christmas was driven out of the land by proclamation of Parliament. Return

20. Some sources cite selections from Milton’s Paradise Lost in support of Milton’s support for carols. However, Paradise Lost was not published until 1667, well after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Return

21. Ian Bradley, Op. Sit. Return

22. And, in 1654, the Puritan Parliament required the practice of "lining-out", the practice of having each line read by a minister, parish clerk or precentor before it was sung by the congregation. The ordinance read: "that the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm-book, and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm line by line before the singing thereof." In the United States, this practice was known as "Deaconing." The Act was entitled "The Directory for the Public Worship of God." See Neal, Volume 2, page 468. Return

23. Routley, page 123. Return

24. Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan, at page 321 Return

25. Coldwell, quoting Neal, 458. Return

26. It might just be a coincidence, but some 150 years later, Clement Moore would use a similar phrase: ‘Not a creature was stirring, [not even a mouse.]" Return

27. In part, this was a result of the ascendancy of the psalter as the major source of congregational singing. Return

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Douglas D. Anderson

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