The English Victorian Christmas is an ideal: the glowing Christmas tree, the carols, figgy pudding, Christmas goose or turkey, special charity for the poor, and the holly and the ivy. Then there’s the more extended English medieval Christmas: wassail, the Yule log and the festive Twelve Days of Christmas until the feast of the Epiphany. There’s a mixture of English, Welsh, German and French traditions in these images.
Even if we have to face the ghosts of Christmases past (or present and future), we want that perfect celebration of family and faith. Between the medieval era and the Victorian, however, the very idea of celebrating the birth of Our Savior with feasting and revelry was banned in 17th-century England. Every December was like Narnia because, although it was winter and it might be cold and snowy, there was no Christmas.
From 1649 to 1660, between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, the Puritans ruled England and (by exploration and emigration) the British colonies in the New World. Christmas (Christ’s Mass) was banned, and it was illegal to celebrate with feasting on Dec. 25 if Parliament had declared it a day of fasting. Shops had to be open, and laborers had to work because it was neither a holy day nor a holiday. The Church of England and its Book of Common Prayer had been suppressed. The remnant of Catholics celebrated Christmas, secretly and quietly.
Colonial British America
In the American colonies, to which many Puritans and nonconformists to Anglicanism had fled during the reign of Charles I in opposition to his religious policies, Christmas was also banned, either officially or practically. In Massachusetts, Christmas celebrations were against the law from 1659 to 1681: Violators would be fined five shillings.
In both England and its American colonies, the Puritans objected to Christmas for two reasons: They thought it was a Catholic, unbiblical celebration of Christ’s nativity with too many pagan connections, and they did not approve of the revelry and feasting that sometimes resulted in drunkenness and disruption.
Revival of Christmas in England
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that put Charles II, “The Merry Monarch,” on the throne, Puritans and other nonconformists were relegated to the fringes of English society. Christmas was back on the calendar as a religious holiday, and no one would forbid its public celebration.
As the new movie The Man Who Invented Christmas claims (with some exaggeration in the title!) Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol revived the celebration of Christmas, depicting the joy and plenty and the colors and sounds of a day of feasting, family and friends, as in this passage from the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present:
The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.
Dickens crams every treat imaginable into this scene and many others.
As Dickens had restored the Feast of Christmas, he also made it seem like a brief celebration: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were soon over, and Bob Cratchit went back to work the next day. Scrooge does wish him “A merry Christmas, Bob! … A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year!” and then proceeds to help his family and save Tiny Tim, but Christmas is over.
‘Christmas Won’t Be Christmas’: Christmas in the U.S.A.
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was issued in a single-volume work in 1880, 10 years after President Ulysses Grant had proclaimed Christmas a federal holiday. It begins with the famous line:
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
While the March family is poor, they give from their want to an impoverished German family, sacrificing their Christmas breakfast. Alcott’s picture of Christmas emphasizes charity as Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy also buy their mother presents rather than spend their dollars for themselves. There’s no mention of attending a church service, but the girls do spend some time reading John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress and have a party and present a play on Christmas night, with a splendid treat of cake and ice cream provided by their neighbor, Mr. Laurence.
The March family Christmas ends with thoughts of Mr. March, serving in the Union Army in the Civil War as a chaplain. The name of Jesus is never mentioned, nor his birth.
The celebration of Christmas had taken longer to develop in the United States of America from colonial times to the late 19th century.
Wherever the Church of England — the Episcopal Church — was the official colonial church, Christmas was celebrated. The Moravians in Pennsylvania decorated Christmas trees and placed candles in their windows.
Just as Gen. George Washington banned the bonfires and parades of the Fifth of November — since it was an English festival celebrating the survival of monarchy and the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot — the association between Christmas and its English, monarchial celebration meant it was unpopular during the American Revolution.
Four score and seven years or so later, the Civil War and its aftermath revived the celebration of Christmas in the United States of America, with an emphasis on family, home and feasting together. The Christmas tree, carols, cards and gifts wrapped in paper and ribbons — as well as increased charitable giving — became hallmarks of an American Christmas with Santa Claus as its figurehead.
Through all these changes and developments, the religious and sacred celebration of the Feast of the Nativity remained constant in the Catholic Church, East and West. The Masses and the Divine Office of the Christmas season have always hailed the birth of the Savior and his manifestation to the world.
Throughout the centuries, Catholics have been influenced by the fashions of customs of national celebrations, but the Virgin and Child have always been our focus.