Merrie, merrie England is once again planning its traditional Christmas dinners, largely unaware that the long shadow of 17th century killjoy Oliver Cromwell hangs over the festivities.

The staunch Puritan who ran the country between 1642 and 1660 banned hearty Christmas feasting - and no one can say for sure that the law has been revoked.So it may still be illegal in terms of the 1644 Act to bake and eat mince pies and Christmas pudding on Christmas Day. Cromwell ruled that these were "abominable and idolatrous confections to be avoided by Christians."

And woe betide anyone who manages a Christmas dinner of more than three courses - simple gluttony to Cromwell's Puritan way of thinking.

Geoffrey Humphrys, who has spent hours among the statute books in his local library, says he believes Cromwell's law is probably still in force.

"Some people argue that the Cromwell era was simply a kind of interim period between the dissolution of the monarchy and its restoration and that his laws are not to be taken seriously," he said in an interview from his home in North Walsham, Norfolk.

"But some are still on the statute book. I've seen them."

Fortunately the Puritans' more drastic anti-Christmas measures did get the chop, according to J.M. Golby and A.W. Purdue, authors of "The Making of the Modern Christmas."

"For a dozen years the traditional Christmas festivities were prohibited: Parliament sat on Christmas Day, its soldiers attempted to ensure shops were open and the churches remained closed while evergreen decorations were prohibited," they said.

Finally, the good and aggrieved men of Kent marched in support of Christmas jolliness. Ten thousand signed a resolution that "if they could not have their Christmas day, they would have the king back on his throne."

With the restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell, most Christmas customs were legalized once again.

According to Golby and Purdue, the Puritans objected to Christmas celebrations because the holiday was rooted in pagan worship.

Ancient Britons celebrated Dec. 25 as The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, marking the death of the old year and the beginning of the new.

But Cromwell wasn't the only spoilsport in English history who tampered with Christmas, Humphrys has discovered.

The Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551, never revoked according to Humphrys' research, makes it illegal to skip church on Christmas Day and there are penalties for those who have "no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent."

This law, he says, also obliges worshipers to walk to church and back. Other exercise is largely forbidden: the only sports allowed by the Lawful Games Act of 1541 are archery, leaping and vaulting, according to Humphrys.

An Act of 1625 decrees that footballers may kick a ball around, but only in their own back yards, as "there shall be no meetings, assemblings or concourses of people out of their owne parishes for any sporte or pastime whatsoever." That law is still rigorously enforced.

There is also no chance of going out and shooting the extra pheasant if unexpected guests arrive. A law enacted in 1831 says the only legal use of a weapon on Christmas Day is in defense of the realm or in self-defense, says Humphrys.

The office of the Lord Chancellor, chief legal officer of England and Wales, was tickled by Humphrys' Christmas thesis.

"We don't really have an expert on this subject," said a spokesman, cloaked as always in anonymity. "Obviously, it's a bit obscure."

However, he said it was quite likely Humphrys was correct. "If something is in the Statutes in Force book, it is still the law, no matter how old it is."

However, legislation of 1831 stipulates nobody can be arrested for anything but serious crime or breach of the peace on Dec. 25, Humphrys said.

And anyway, he adds, policemen should not be on the beat on Christmas Day.

A law promulgated under King Charles II in 1677 states that "noe servant, artificer, workeman, labourer or other person whatsoever shall do or exercise any worldly labours, business or worke of their ordinary callings" on that day.