By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys
In October 2004, Christians, trade-unionists, and the festively-inclined rejoiced at the introduction of the Christmas Day (Trading) Act. Ever since then it has been illegal for large shops to be open on Christmas Day; workers theoretically have the chance to rest and spend time with loved ones; Christians can celebrate the festival undisturbed by other commitments. Three-and-a-half centuries before this legislation came into force the picture was somewhat different. In December 1643, zealously Christian shopkeepers stubbornly tried (and failed) to keep their businesses trading on Christmas Day against the riotous objections of the apprentice-boys of London. The dispute over Christmas trading and other festivities that lasted for much of the next two decades meant that for the rest of the seventeenth century it was the opening of shops of Christmas Day, rather than their closing, that was regarded as an expression of a pious Protestantism.
It was not until Christmas Eve 1652 that (following the execution of Charles I in January 1649) the Rump Parliament issued a proclamation that shops should be kept open on 25 December. However, this move was part of a longer-running ‘Puritan’ suspicion of Christmas celebrations that had been developing since the late sixteenth-century, and indeed in Scotland the celebration of that feast had been banned as early as the 1560s. This was not just because the most devout Protestants objected to the drunkenness, feasting, carding, gaming, and general revelry that had come to be impiously associated with the twelve days of Christmas, although this was certainly important in fuelling their objections. Rather, it was part of a broader anti-Catholicism which sought to stamp out all remnants of Catholic practice in England and Scotland. The designation of 25 December as a holy feast day was regarded to have been a superstitious creation of the Catholic Church, and therefore to be avoided at all costs.
The gains of Parliamentarians in the Civil Wars of the 1640s and the establishment of ‘Puritan’ republican rule in the 1650s allowed these views long held by a minority of the population to be put into practice more broadly. In 1645 the Directory of Public Worship made it clear that Christmas Day was to see no special observance, stating that feast days had ‘no Warrant in the Word of God’. Despite this, celebrations continued in many areas, and the various parliaments and governments of the next decade felt the need to repeatedly issue reminders, including that against shop closures in 1652, that Christmas was not to be superstitiously marked out as a special day of celebration. This sparked the publication of numerous satirical pamphlets and ballads in support of Christmas and in more general opposition to the Parliamentarian regimes, including Women will have their will: or, Give Christmas his due (1649) and The Vindication of Christmas, or His twelve yeares observations upon the times (1652).
Christmas celebrations were restored, along with the monarchy, in 1660, but the controversy surrounding Christmas opening did not dissolve. Quakers in particular, who believed that as all life was holy and that Christmas Day was therefore no different, continued to keep shops open on Christmas Day. This caused considerable consternation in some quarters. In Norwich in 1676, for instance, people threw snowballs and even bones through the windows of Quaker-owned shops that were open on 25 December. In 1679 a determined supporter of the Established Church, William Allen, wrote A friendly call, or, A seasonable perswasive to unity directed to all nonconformists and dissenters in religion from the Church of England which, among other things, criticised the avoidance of Christmas celebrations by Quakers and other nonconformists as superstitious in itself. The non-celebration of Christmas had become a mark of religious distinction.
Controversy over Christmas trading is not simply a product of today’s consumer society. It has a heritage going back some four-hundred years. The shape of debate is, however, now very different. Today’s advocates of Christmas trading are motivated by a secular economic drive, and many fear that this has led Christmas Day to become a day like no other, squeezing out the possibility of time specially set aside for religious observance or family gatherings. By contrast, and seemingly paradoxically, it was a deep-seated piety that motivated Puritan advocation of Christmas Day trading.
- Mark Stoyle, ‘No Christmas under Cronwell?’, BBC History Magazine, December 2013: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/no-christmas-under-cromwell-puritan-assault-christmas-during-1640s-and-1650s
- Chris Durston, ‘The Puritan War on Christmas’, History Today, 35, 12, December 1985: http://www.historytoday.com/chris-durston/puritan-war-christmas
Image: Directory for Public Worship, 1651, By Westminster Assembly [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
 Nancy Black Sagafi-Nejad, Friends at the Bar: A Quaker View of Law, Conflict Resolution, and Legal Reform (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011), p. 31.