“What are you doing for Christmas?” – a question we could be asked at anytime from September onwards. No other public holiday commands such importance in Britain than Christmas that it is planned and prepared for almost six months earlier.
Christmas’ critics make the mistake of worrying that either the religious aspect doesn’t apply to them, or that the commercialisation has diluted the spiritual significance. A woman in America, after seeing that her local Church was advertising a Christmas service was reported to have said “Even the Church is cashing in on it.” It seems that paradoxes such as these that give Christmas its fascinating nature. Even in the cynical wonder-less world of twenty-first century there is still magic to be had – if you know where to look.
Christmas has a power, stronger than Cromwell who had it banned, only for it to survive underground and resurface when the coast was clear. It is from those sixteen years when public celebration was outlawed that the concept of spending Christmas with the family became a new tradition, which continues today.
The myths and traditions surrounding Christmas have their origins going back thousands of years, way back before the birth of Christ. The first 25th of December as a celebration of Christ’s birth was celebrated in Rome in AD 336. (Further east the date had previously been set as the 6th January, giving rise to the twelve days of Christmas, from the official date to the older date). It became an official celebration in Britain in AD 567 when the Council of Tours declared the twelve days as festaltide. Ethelred ordained it to be a time of peace when all strife must cease in 991.
Christmas is as multi-cultural as you can get. Just think of the ‘traditional’ Christmas day: the turkey; an Aztec bird, a German tree, a pudding made from Asian spices, a carol about the Bohemian King Wenceslas to the tune of a Swedish spring song, pagan magic, mistletoe and holly, wood spirits dressed up as angels and a Russian saint. ‘Christmas’ has had many names and many traditions over the millennia and has proved notably stubborn to give any of them up.
The religion of the Kalands gave us our calendar which sets January 1st as the first day of the new year. Prior to this, in the Celtic year, November 1st was New Year’s Day and it was on the night before, All Hallows Eve, that people believed the souls of the dead would return for just one night. It is from the Celts that we have the concept of ‘eve’ as they considered the evening before an important day to be as revered as the day itself.
There seems to have always been a festival on or around the 25th December. In the age of magic it was the winter solstice and later with other pagan influences including Roman ones, the festival of the unconquered sun and the worship of Saturn, which was also on the 25th.
During the agricultural age the twelve days of Christmas were granted as a holiday, but in the industrial age of recent centuries, the holiday shrunk, and continues to shrink to the bare minimum. The erosion of Sunday as a day of rest in recent years and twenty-four hour shopping has reduced the communal rest to levels unheard of since the Victorian workhouses.
But the modern world has had an effect to balance out those changes too. With television and mass communication, Christmas is a shared experience more than ever. The ingredients of Christmas are not spoiled if you look selectively. It has lost the odd custom here and there, but after the setbacks of the Cromwell years, Christmas underwent a massive resurgence in the nineteenth century escalating to the phenomenal proportions of today.
Everyone is familiar with the image of the Victorian Christmas, mainly from Charles Dickens’ novels like ‘A Christmas Carol’, but why did the Victorian fascination with Christmas begin? Perhaps it was because of the nature of society that had become the take shape during that time. For the wealthy, times were good and people had time on their hands to be miserable while for the poor, times were bad. Both sections of society then began the concept of looking back to a Golden Age when life was easier and simpler than the harsh world of their present. In effect then, the Victorians invented ‘retro’, the idea of borrowing ideas and style from the past whilst wishing today was as rosy as the ‘Good Old Days’. It was this imagined Golden Age that they tried to revive in Christmas celebrations, a time so rooted in tradition that it has become tradition for tradition’s sake.
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we are at the end of time; Christmas is still evolving, still expanding. Some traditions fade away while some grow ever stronger. Take for example the jolly figure of Santa Claus, or to give him his British name, Father Christmas. There is an important difference between the two. Santa Claus is how he is known in America where he wears a bobble hat. In Britain, more so now in the North, he is still Father Christmas and wears a hood where his existence goes back long before Saint Nicolas, even back into pagan times as the god Saturn, the Scandinavian god of Yule and the Green Man. Until Victorian times his clothes were green and he wore a holly wreath if he wasn’t wearing his hood and cloak.
A popular Urban myth is that he was an invention of the Coca Cola company. This is not quite the case. What is true is that they used a more clean cut and standardised image of Santa Claus for their successful 1931 advertisements which was later adopted by other artists to form the definitive American Santa Claus, which America then began to ship back across the Atlantic back to Europe along with their version of Halloween which had all but died out in its native Europe.
New traditions of recent years have established themselves; the Christmas number one record, the Queen’s Speech, even the old tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas night has survived in the Christmas feature film on television. Nowadays we are just as likely to hear Bing Crosby or Slade’s Christmas songs as any ‘traditional’ carol. ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is still in there but layer upon layer of the modern Christmas has been added.
Christmas is criticised for sentimentality and yet it is that sentiment that becomes good-will and charity at a time when those in need have greater need than any other time of the year. This Christmas sentiment is most notable in the phenomenal story of Christmas 1914 when the slaughter stopped in the trenches and enemies exchanged cigarettes and food and played a game of football. Christmas sentiment was the trigger, initially on the German side, to question the war. The truce lasted several days and in some areas up to a week. Only when the generals ordered fraternising with the enemy to be punishable with death did trust turn to suspicion and the guns started booming again. Alfred Anderson, who served with the 5th Battalion the Black Watch and the last surviving member of the Christmas Truce died in November this year aged 109.
Yes it is tacky and sometimes tasteless, but decking our homes in plastic trees, flashing coloured lights and silver tinsel is possibly the only way we know to rekindle the magic and mark the occasion as special, for a reason that is lost to most of us.
Christmas is the perfect marriage of our needs and desires, both ancient and modern. It is the ultimate festival, providing the greatest sense of occasion of all. It is an agreed, shared, communal lift. It is today as it was in ancient times: the festival of birth, of hope, of light, in the black barren darkness of winter. In our electric lit, atmospherically controlled world we have no obvious physical needs, but are there other needs? Does the festive season lighten the darkness in our hearts? Perhaps it does remind us of a Golden Age, the mythical Victorian Christmas or perhaps our own childhoods, if they were more tranquil than our current lives.
It is a celebration of the family and of friendship. A time of greed and yet of charity. A time, as in 1914, of questioning the world. It is a deadline, a marker, representing the achievements of the past year and all the hopes and dreams of the years to come, like standing on the edge of eternity.
Overall it is special, relieving us from the ordinariness of the rest of the year, so that for a very short time the leaden weight that oppresses us is somehow lifted to reveal our natural state of joy.
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