In a favourite scene from Kevin Reynolds's 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Alan Rickman, reacts furiously when his evil plans are thwarted yet again. He reels off the punishments he intends to inflict on the people of Nottingham. "Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, and no more merciful beheadings," he orders, and is about to storm off when he thinks of something worse still: "And CALL OFF CHRISTMAS!"

Whatever about the Sheriff's other plans, calling off Christmas was not as far-fetched an idea as it sounds these days. For some time, the medieval Church in Europe did indeed want to put an end to Christmas - or, at least, to the way it was celebrated. It was felt that there was too strong a link between Christmas and the pagan winter festivals that had gone before this Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. One of these festivals was the ancient Roman Saturnalia, also a time when it was important to give gifts and make merry, and when evergreen plants, like fir and holly, and lights, were used for decoration.

Saturnalia (34420)

Yule was the other pagan winter festival, held in northern Europe from late December to early January. The last part of Europe to embrace Christianity had been the Scandinavian countries where Yule was celebrated, such as Finland and Sweden. In the various languages of these countries, Christmas is still known as Jul; from the year 900, the word Yule was one of those used in English to refer to Christmas.

There was growing concern in medieval times that the traditions of these pagan festivals, such as the burning of a Yule log, were distracting Christians from the proper dignity of celebrating the birth of Christ. One of the most important features of the Saturnalia festival was role reversal, for example allowing slaves to command their masters for a day. These traditions of 'misrule', as it was called in medieval times, continued as part of medieval Christmases: people gambled, drank too much, and often forgot about sexual propriety.

A 'lord of misrule' as he would have appeared to take part in medieval and early sixteenth-century Christmas celebrations

Over the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Christmas was celebrated on a larger scale, with large dinners, musical dramas known as masques, and pageants. Plays such as William Shakespeare's 1601 – 02 Twelfth Night were written to be performed at the royal courts during Christmastide. The 1616 Christmas His Masque was written by English dramatist Ben Jonson for performance at the court of King James I, and during it the figure of Christmas promises that he will bring to the king and his family "A right Christmas, as of old it was, / to be gathered out of the Dances . . . "

Ben Jonson

But at a time of religious reformation and division, there was still concern that celebrating Christmas could distract people from true spirituality. After the 1642 – 51 English Civil War, fought between the forces of King Charles I and those of Parliament, the monarchy of England was replaced for a time by Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarian followers. As Puritans, they disapproved of traditional holidays such as Christmas, and thought all religious worship should be strictly regulated. From 1647 the celebration of Christmas was banned under Puritan rule. Christmas in England was indeed "called off" - for thirteen years, until the monarchy was restored under King Charles II.

Oliver Cromwell

The English people did not tamely accept the banning of Christmas: in cities such as Canterbury, many rioted against the ban, and the Parliamentarians that imposed it. In 1652 a book called The Vindication of Christmas was published in London, arguing that England should keep its Christmas traditions: carol singing, eating a big dinner, roasting apples on the fire, playing cards and dancing.

As the Pilgrim Fathers were also Puritans, the celebration of Christmas in New England was outlawed for longer than it was in England. From 1659 to 1681, it was banned in Boston. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that celebrating Christmas became really fashionable in that region of America, although it was freely celebrated in New York and Virginia.

The new popularity of Christmas in the nineteenth century began in the 1820s. In England, the old religious differences that had led to the Puritans' banning of Christmas had become less important, and people had begun to look back with regret at the happier traditions from medieval and Tudor Christmases. English society now suffered more as a result of social problems than religious divisions.

The United States of America, too, were trying to establish a sense of unity and stability, through which old customs could still have meaning in an independent nation. American writer Washington Irving used the 1652 Vindication of Christmas as part of the source material for his writings on the celebration of Christmas in England, published in 1820 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon.

Washington Irving

In Britain writers such as Charles Dickens began to use Christmas to address social injustices, arguing that it should be celebrated as a time for family unity and generosity to those less fortunate. In 1843 Dickens published the novel A Christmas Carol, in which the embittered miser Scrooge is brought to appreciate Christmas. Early on in the novel, Scrooge's kindly nephew explains that he sees Christmas differently from his uncle:

Charles Dickens

" . . . a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

The title page of the first edition of 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens

Many of the features of a modern Christmas began to appear at this time. In 1843, the year A Christmas Carol was published, the first commercial Christmas card was also produced, by Sir Henry Cole, the director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. In Britain, the Christmas tree was popularised from 1841 by Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert. These European customs travelled to America, where, in 1870, American President Ulysses S. Grant formally declared Christmas a United States Federal holiday.

The first ever Christmas card, designed for Sir Henry Cole

In 1997 and 1998, the City Council of Birmingham, England, arranged its festivities from October or November to January under the name of 'Winterval'. Even though the activities included religious events, and Christmas was mentioned plenty of times, there was a lot of opposition to the new name, and the experiment was not repeated. For all the diversity of modern society, it seems that calling off Christmas, even in name, remains every bit as unrealistic as those lines given some years earlier to the Sheriff of Nottingham.