A Treasury of Christmas Carols


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Christmas Dissolved

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. 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.

Shortly thereafter, On September 10, 1643, the Puritans abolished the previous liturgy and its musical accompaniment, especially in cathedrals and college chapels. 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 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.

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, 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 (photo 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.

I have been unable to locate any support for the widely repeated allegation that in 1643, the Parliament officially abolished the celebration of Christmas. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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

On June 8, 1645, the Parliament abolished the observance of Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide, 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…

But at Christmas 1645, open rioting occurred when shops were opened on Christmas Day. 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."

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."

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. 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'.

Notwithstanding these arguments, Christmas Carols were banned by the Puritans beginning in 1649; only songs from a psalm-book (or psalter) were permitted. 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."

Charles W. Jones relates that in England the Puritans could not end customs of Christmas, however stringently legislated against. 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.

The Roundheads were uncompromising; they 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.

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. 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

American Puritanism

Early in the 17th century some Puritan groups separated from the Church of England. Among these were the Pilgrims, who in 1620 founded Plymouth Colony. Christopher Jones, the master of the Mayflower, wrote in the ship’s log:

"At anchor in Plymouth harbor; Christmas Day, but not observed by these colonists, they being opposed to all saints’ days….A large party went ashore this morning to fell timber and begin building. They began to erect the first house about twenty feet square for their common use, to receive them and their goods….No man rested all that day."

It was reported that the colonists had some beer that evening.

On Christmas Day, 1621, Governor William Bradford encountered a group of people who were taking the day off from work:

"And herewith I shall end this year [1621]. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth then of waight. One ye day called Christmas-day, ye Govr [William Bradford] caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on yt day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; somepitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly."

In 1628, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the next major Puritan migration to New England took place. These Puritans were not Separatists (as were the Pilgrims at Plymouth), although their colony, established at the present site of Boston, was established as a religious and political sanctuary.

In Puritan New England, Christmas remains a working day, the violation of which was punishable by fine or dismissal. In 1659, the Massachusetts Puritans declared the observation of Christmas to be a criminal offense by passed the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law:

Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.

A second five shilling fine could be imposed upon anyone who was found gambling with cards or dice. The laws was repealed in 1681 when it became clear that London might revoke the charter of the Colony.

In 1687, the Rev. Increase Mather of Boston wrote:

The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after a holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revelling, in excess of wine, in mad Mirth….

A child missing school on Christmas Day in Boston public schools as recently as 1870 would be punished and possibly dismissed. Workmen missing work could also be penalized or dismissed. The Five-Shilling Law was repealed in 1681, under pressure from London.

The Puritans brought strong religious impulses to bear in all colonies north of Virginia, but New England was their stronghold, and the Congregationalist churches established there were able to perpetuate their viewpoint about a Christian society for more than 200 years. In New England, Congregationalist churches worked so closely with civil governments in every colony except Rhode Island that no other type of church was allowed in the area until 1690, when English authorities forced them to tolerate other religious groups. This relationship is often called theocracy, a situation in which ministers interpreted biblical laws related to general human conduct and town officials enforced them through police power. State government support for Congregationalist churches did not end until 1818 in Connecticut and not until 1834 in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, other groups of immigrants kept the Christmas spirit alive. The Dutch settled New Amsterdam in 1626 (later New York), and kept alive many Christmas traditions from their homelands; they weren’t alone -- . by 1646 the population also included French, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Portuguese and Italians. William Penn’s Quakers dominated in Philadelphia, which also included Germans and Scots-Irish – both of whom settled widely on the eastern shores. The rich traditions of the Lutherans were brought to the new world by immigrants from Germany and the Scandinavian countries to Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and the South. The founding of Williamsburg, Virginia in 1699, primarily by English and Scottish emigrants, provided a safe outpost for the celebration of Christmas. The Moravians – closely linked to the Lutherans – beginning in 1735, founded churches in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. It was Moravian immigrants at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the 1740s introduce the celebration of Christmas with such German customs as the visit from Saint Nicholas (AKA "Santa Claus") and the Christmas Tree.

Although the New England colonies were established by Puritans opposed to Anglicanism, large numbers of Anglicans settled in the southern colonies (in Virginia in 1607), and the Church of England (known as the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution) became the established church in the Carolinas, Maryland, and Virginia. Maryland was also a refuge for Catholics. The Episcopal Church was also strong in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The Methodists – an off-shoot of the Church of England – established their first church in Baltimore, Maryland, and rapidly spread throughout the Eastern seaboard of the United States, both north and south.

The Baptists founded their first congregation in Rhode Island in 1639. They spread rapidly in America, especially in the South, the Mid-west and the Far West, where they retain their strength today.

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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
A Christmas Poetry Collection

The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
Still favorites today!

Other Books by Doug Anderson

A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories

Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book

Daily Prayer

Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009
A new edition for 2010 is being prepared.

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Books by Doug Anderson

Christmas is a wonderful, cheerful holiday.  Whether we spend it by a real tree or some Balsam Hill artificial Christmas trees, at the end of the day what matters is that we enjoy our time together with our loved ones. 

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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