We say that phrase approximately 1 bazillion times in the month of December, and it means different things to different people. Presents, family, religion, hope, friendship, cheesy movies, store lines.... the delightful (mostly) chaos of the season.
To me, it also means a time of Thanksgiving. It is a time to be grateful for God, for Jesus, for the fact that my family is wonderfully free of feuds and most fighting( aside from the Christmas when my brother attacked me for humming silent night. ) For the little miracles that happen not just in cheesy, adorable holiday movies but in real life. For the smiles on children’s faces as they line up to meet the one and only Santa Claus at church parties and concerts. Christmas means something different to everyone- or a lot of somethings, but to me it means Thanksgiving.
We give thanks on Christmas for so many things- friends, family, God. We give thanks for the birth of our savior, for the gift of His life, for the hope that He brings.
There is something else that I give thanks for- the commoners of Canterbury in the mid 1600s. Wait what, who why? Let’s back up.
During the English Civil war, the two factions were the royalists and the roundheads- the roundheads were mostly puritan and led by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan.
The Puritans were very religious and not in a good way. they were the shove their religion down everyone’s throats kind of people. And they hated a lot of things, including Christmas.
Christmas was both too pagan- originating in a pagan festival called saturnalia held at midwinter- and too Catholic- the name being “Christ’s Mass” and being associated with feasting and singing and celebration- something the puritans discouraged. And by discouraged I mean hated. And banned.
So in the 1640’s, Christmas was in peril in England. It had already been banned in the puritan run colonies in the New World and in Scotland. Though the commoners and king mostly loved Christmas, those gaining power most certainly did not. It was an excuse to get drunk, they said, and the holiday was being abused- and really ought not be a holiday because it’s insulting to guess when Christ was born and Christ would be offended by singing and merrymaking and joy. Right. Because Christ was so against singing and merrymaking that one of his miracles was to turn wine into water to ensure a proper reverent quiet at a wedding. I’m still not sure the Puritans ever read the new Testament. They were awfully fond of hating people and not so big on loving others.
So Laws were passed, Christmas was to be a working day. And though the non puritan population of England didn’t like it, they had little choice but to go along with it, but still celebrate in the confines of their own homes and have goose and exchange small gifts- the way we still do today, though our celebrations tend to be louder, gifts tend to be bigger and I’m not sure I’ve ever had goose, my family mostly has chicken. Or ham.
But this wasn’t enough for the puritan parliament, because people were still celebrating Christmas, particularly in London and in Canterbury, so more laws were passed. Not only was Christmas a work day, it was a day for fasting. And since this was in England, Christmas was THE feast day. Imagine being told that you were to fast on thanksgiving, by the government. How many of you would listen? People still had their Christmas goose that year, but not as many, and windows were shuttered. There was very little celebration- no carolers singing for figgy pudding, no church services except for those Catholics that secretly practiced their religion in rented rooms and barns, or if they were very lucky, their cathedrals.
But still, Christmas was quietly celebrated. Children still woke to small tokens from St. Nicolas- or as the puritans had named him before trying to do away with him altogether, Father Christmas.
For the commoners, Christmas was their only freeday, their only break from hard labor, and they would cling to it as though it were life itself.
The Puritans were not happy.
So in 1647, Christmas was banned outright- militias would roam on the 25th and anyone caught celebrating Christmas in any way would be punished- Christmas could not be allowed to continue. It was Pagan, it was Catholic, it was unholy and an offense to God, so said the puritans. So it was made law- Christmas was illegal.
The commoners were unhappy.
Jeff Guinn, the author of three christmas related historical fantasies summarized the attitude and opinion these nonpuritan folk held about christmas in his book “ How Mrs. claus saved Christmas.” In his book, Mrs. Claus herself- called Layla- has words with Oliver Cromwell, the man who at the time was the leader of parliament and thus England. Cromwell explains how evil and unholy christmas is, to which Layla responds:
"You have told me what Christmas is not. Now allow me, sir, to tell you what Christmas is. Christmas is a day when we can reflect in our words and deeds the same generosity of spirit that moved our Lord to send us his son. It is a day when, for a few fleeting hours, every man, woman, and child can remember all the joyful things in their lives instead of being worn down by problems and hardship. It is a day when, for a little while, there are no masters and servants, no rich and poor, just human beings equal in their love of Jesus and in their respect for one another. In short, Mr. Cromwell, Christmas is Holy."
And Holy Christmas is. This I believe with all my heart, more than I ever believed in Santa, or his reindeer. This we as a church believe- while we know that the 25th of December is not Christ’s birthday, it is a day when we give thanks for Christ, for our friends and families- of blood or of choice or of church.
And this the people of England believed.
And so on december 25th 1647, non puritans across England staged- without consulting neighboring cities or towns- massive protests, the largest occurring in Canterbury. Called a Riot, it consisted of more than 10,000 people. They marched into town, sang carols and asked shopkeepers to close for the day in honor of Christ’s birth. No one was hurt. The protestors kept peace and celebrated their holiday.
The puritans were not happy, but they were wise. They relented. While they would never agree that Christmas was holy, they knew that they did not and never would have the support of the people when it came to the holiday.
It took many years for Christmas to become what it once was- a loud day of celebration and feasting and caroling and joy. But it was, at least, saved.
Christmas came back to Scotland eventually, and to America.
Perhaps Christmas in all the world was not threatened, but it was threatened, and it was saved. For that I am thankful for the commoners of Canterbury in 1647, who risked jail and worse for their beloved holiday.