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Christmastime in England: Prohibitions and Permissions

The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, a foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress covering the United Kingdom and several other jurisdictions.  Other recent posts by Clare include Regulating the Rag and Bone Man and Jediism in Not a Recognized Religion in England and Wales.

It is the holiday season once more, when everyone is a little jollier than usual and there is a palpable cheer and smell of pine in the air.  Parents are eager to make holiday memories for their children, and children are excited to learn the family traditions.  I grew up in England, so my memories lie across the other side of a vast ocean.  There are some traditions that I want my children to have, so I have to import certain items.  There is nothing like the joy that comes with watching your child discover they love your favorite chocolates.  I love mince pies, which are a Christmas tradition in England.  They are small pies (about the size of a small cupcake) with a pastry shell and a sweet filling of raisins and suet.  I’m not the only one – in 2010, a nationwide shop in England sold one million mince pies per week in the weeks before Christmas.  If I have a friend visiting, I will offer them one of my secret stash.  This act of true generosity and kindness is generally met with a look of either curiosity or, more frequently, disgust.  I believe that many of my American friends think that I am offering them a cold, raw meat pie, which combined with the offer of clotted cream (another English delicacy that I keep carefully hidden) leaves some friends running away.

As with other stories that often crop up around holidays, a belief sometimes surfaces that it is illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas day in England, leaving mince pie lovers to eat these treats behind locked doors and closed curtains.  In 2015, the Law Commission thankfully confirmed there is no current law that prohibits indulging in the occasional mince pie; however, such a ban did exist in England, a few centuries back in the 17th century, and what followed after the mince pie ban was a prohibition on celebrating Christmas in its entirety.

No More Mince Pies for You!     

The origin of the ban dates back to the beginning of 1642 when England was on the cusp of a civil war that would see it operate as a Republic for a brief period of time under Oliver Cromwell.  The ban was tied in with fasting and the puritan movement in England, where the Puritans believed that Christmas was a “popish” tradition that led people to sinful behavior by indulging in excesses of both food and behavior.  In 1642, Parliament passed an Ordinance that made the last Wednesday in each month a day of fasting.  In 1644, the fast fell on the same day that Christmas was traditionally celebrated and a request was made to waive it.  Parliament refused:

Public notice to be given for observation of Monthly Fast till further order.; And on the next day, being Christmas Day, in particular.

Whereas some doubts have been raised whether the next Fast shall be celebrated, because it falleth on the day which heretofore was usually called the feast of the Nativity of our Saviour. The Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled doe order and ordaine that publique notice be given that the Fast appointed to be kept on the last Wednesday in every moneth ought to be observed untill it be otherwise ordered by both Houses of Parliament: And that this day in particular is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights, being contrary to the life which Christ himselfe led here upon earth, and to the spirituall life of Christ in our soules for the sanctifying and saving whereof Christ was pleased both to take a humane life, and to lay it down againe.

[Oliver Cromwell, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, in oval] / Robert Walker 1607-1658?. [between 1850 and 1890]. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b41854

An Outright Ban

While this may have seemed harsh at the time, the worst was yet to come.  On June 8, 1647, the Long Parliament passed an ordinance that banned Christmas completely, titled “An Ordinance for Abolishing of Festivals“:

All Festivals and Holy Days abolished; …  Forasmuch as the Feasts of the Nativity of Christ, Easter and Whitsuntide, and other Festivals commonly called Holy-Dayes, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed Be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, That the said Feast of the Nativity of Christ, Easter and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival dayes, commonly called Holy-dayes, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holy-dayes within this Kingdome of England and Dominion of Wales, any Law, Statute, Custome, Constitution, or Cannon to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding[.]

The result of this Act was that shops were required to be open on Christmas day and town criers walked the streets calling “No Christmas! No Christmas!”  In London, soldiers were reported to be patrolling the streets and seizing any items they discovered that they believed were to be used to celebrate Christmas.

The ban was resented by many in the population, and riots occurred in some major cities across England as people protested, many of which had to be broken up by force and, with the fragile political climate of the time, spawned further uprisings.  The uprisings were never enough to bring back Christmas during that time, and the churches and many people stopped celebrating, but some individuals continued to surreptitiously celebrate the holiday.  For thirteen years there was no Christmas across England, until the monarchy was restored in 1660 and Christmas Day could be celebrated once more.

The Modern Day Regulation of Christmas

Christmas Day does not continue to be without regulation, but this time it is to ensure that the day may continue to be celebrated.  After a few large shops started to open their doors on Christmas Day, the government undertook a public consultation, in which an overwhelming 97 percent of respondents wanted large stores to remain closed on Christmas Day so as not to “seriously undermine the special nature of Christmas Day as well as having an adverse effect on employees.”  To preserve the special nature of this holiday, the government enacted the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004, which prohibits stores larger than 3,000 square feet from opening on Christmas Day.  Stores smaller than 3,000 square feet remain unaffected by the legislation and are able to remain open, if they wish, and may sell all the mince pies they can.

One Comment

  1. Jake Joehl
    December 21, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks for posting this fascinating story. I actually had one of those pies a long time ago, and it was pretty tasty. Here’s wishing all staff and volunteers of the Library of Congress happy and safe holidays. Keep up the great work you do.

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