“In Christmas tyme there is nothing else used but cardes, dice, tables, maskyne, mumming, bowling and suche like fooleries.”
– PHILIP STUBBS Anatomie of Abuses 1583
You can relax. Christmas isn’t actually illegal at the moment but judging by the way the COVID-19 tide is taking us we may find ourselves locked up by the end of December, leaving some of us depressed by the thought we won’t be allowed to meet up with our families over the turkey and others cheerful because we don’t have to drive up to Huddersfield to visit Great Aunt Maud.
Christmas always seems to bring out the party poopers. Almost everyone has had a crack at trying to stop the fun, from Oliver Cromwell to the stout generals of the British Army. Over the years all kinds of laws have been passed to prevent people from enjoying themselves, some for reasons of religion, some for “economic or political practicality” and some out of pure spite. As soon as the workers begin to enjoy themselves along comes a nice fat law to wipe the smiles off their faces.
Take ‘bluff King Hal, Henry VIII.’ In 1511 he declared. “That no person shall appear aboard as mummers, covering their faces with visors and in disguised apparel, under pain of three months imprisonment, and a penalty of 20 shillings is declared against such as keep visors in their house for the purpose of mumming.”
His reason for the clamp down? Henry liked to take part in mummers plays himself particularly at his Christmas Court. He felt that if the serfs took up mumming it would lower the tone. The official excuse was “rogues, wasterals and vagabounds are desporting themselves abroad in the guise of mummers.” A likely tale!
In 1541 Henry did the same again with the Unlawful Games Act outlawing all sporting activities apart from archery which was vital for national defence. If you fancied a bit of a kick-about with a football on Boxing Day you could be fined 6 shillings and 8 pence which was a lot of money at the time. Surprisingly this law was not officially repealed until 1960.
In 1625 King Charles 1st - the one who lost his head - extended the Unlawful Games Act to include “bearebaiting, bull baiting, enteluded and common plays”, so if you were looking forward to playing charades on Christmas Day or going to a pantomime, forget it. Reasonably enough the common folk were very upset by all this so the law was softened to allow people to “leape and partake in vaulting”. This had to be done without resort to music of course because it would have turned the prancing into dancing which was illegal just like raves are today!
The 1625 Act also stated that “There shall be no meetings or assembling or concourse of people out of their owne parish for any sport or pastimes whatsoever.” So if you planned to pop down the road to see your old grey haired granny for a glass of sherry and a knees-up - think again.
When the Puritans, party poopers par excellence, came to power in 1642 with Oliver Cromwell they really put a crimp in Christmas.
2nd September 1642
“Spectacles of Pleasure too commonly expressing Mirth and Levity, and public stage Plays shall cease and be forborn.”
The following year the crimp got tighter - twice.
15th February 1643
“Wicked Prophanations of the Lord’s Day by Sports, and Gamings, of Excess in Eating and Drinking, Vanity, Pride, Prodigality in apparel shall cease.”
26th August 1643
“All monuments of Superstition or Idolatry shall be Removed, Taken away and utterly Demolished.”
So if you had any notions of a couple of mince pies, a glass of pale ale and sticking up a few paper chains in the loo… .well, don’t. It was illegal.
In spite of this people could still be seen to smile occasionally so three years later Oliver C dropped the big one…
3rd June 1647
“The Feast of the Nativity of Christ, with all other holidays should no longer be observed.”
To be fair to Oliver Cromwell he wasn’t such an ogre. He did pass another ruling allowing scholars, apprentices, and servants to take the day off the 2nd Tuesday in each month. Huzzah! Let joy be unbounded.
If you think that such governmental grumpiness ended with Cromwell you would be mistaken. In the 1906 ‘Act for the Better Prevention of Corruption’ it states that “Any person who gives or agrees to give, or accepts any gift is an offender”. This was designed to prevent bribery of course but if that old grey haired granny of yours happens to give you a set of hankies this Christmas you could be in deep trouble.
A touch of the Oliver Cromwells appeared during at the first Christmas of the 1914 -1918 War when there was a degree of fraternisation between the opposing troops. This didn’t go down at all well with the High Command of both sides who suspected that “peace on earth and goodwill to all men” were interfering with the soldier’s real business of killing each other. On the 29th December 1914 the German High Command issued this Standing Order:
“Fraternising and especially every approach to the enemy in the trench is forbidden, and in future will be punished as treason.”
The British Staff, not wishing to be left out, came up with something similar making any attempt to spread a little goodwill with the enemy punishable by death. And so the war to end all wars went on its horrific way with British troops “marching with Christ” trying to slaughter men who wore belts with “Got mit uns” (God is with us) on the buckle until over 16 million of them were dead.
Personally I’m with this guy…
“Heap on more wood - the wind is chill, But let it whistle as it will, We’ll keep our Christmas merry still”
– SIR WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832) - Marmion
P.S There is a rumour going round that there will be a COVID-19 vaccine ready by Christmas. Will Santa be breaking the virus rules if he comes down my chimney?
– from Martyn Day