I was just wondering today (a little behind everyone else, it appears) what a 17th century Christmas really was like. In the time of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans enjoyed a lot of power in Parliament, and it turns out they actually canceled Christmas by ordinance in 1652: no holiday, no mince pies, no decorations, no church services. If only they'd had Dr. Seuss to remind them that Christmas happens anyway, even if you take away the gifts and the trappings. Since Christmas Day really isn't the day of Christ's birth -- the day was conscripted for Christmas because it was already a pagan celebration day and it was easier to turn more pagans to Christianity if they still got to party on their favorite day -- the Puritans claimed the day had no basis in the Bible and therefore should be banned. A great description of this episode in history is covered by another blogger, TrickyGirl, who includes a recipe for mince pie: Another Kind of Mind.
The topic also was covered a few days ago by Rachel Schnepper for the New York Times: The Puritan War on Christmas.
The Puritan leader of the time and uncrowned King of England Oliver Cromwell gets blamed for a lot of things (he's the bad guy in my novel Sharavogue, for instance), but the Cromwell Association says we should not blame The Lord Protector for the ban on Christmas:
"There is no sign that Cromwell personally played a particularly large or prominent role in formulating or advancing the various pieces of legislation and other documents which restricted the celebration of Christmas, though from what we know of his faith and beliefs it is likely that he was sympathetic towards and supported such measures, and as Lord Protector from December 1653 until his death in September 1658 he supported the enforcement of the existing measures."
Still, there was much joy among the English people when Christmas was restored along with the monarchy and King Charles II.
The Puritan ban on Christmas was big for the New England colonies, but eventually the drive for religious freedom made Christmas a major holiday in our nation. Now, of course, we have so much religious freedom that Christmas again suffers a ban of sorts: If U.S. government agencies will display signs of the Christian holiday, they must also display the symbols of every other religion, including atheism. The irony is that in some cases these agencies just put an unadorned fir tree on display, and presto, we are right back to pagan symbolism!