I love Christmas. As a child, I spent hours puzzling over my list for Father Christmas. As the holiday approached, I diligently circled the television highlights in the Radio Times. I savoured every mouthful of my turkey, and devoured every moment of the big day’s Bond film.
It never occurred to me that, far from being traditional elements of a centuries-old celebration, all of these things were modern innovations, some invented by the Victorians, others born of postwar affluence. Nor did it occur to me how commercialised my Christmas was, or how far it had departed from the Christian ideal. My family did go to midnight mass. But we went more out of a sense of tradition than anything else – and to be honest, I spent more time thinking about the next day’s presents than the mysteries of Christ’s divinity.
Contemplating the recent history of Christmas is an excellent way of measuring the changes that have transformed our cultural life in the last few decades. Interviewed by the formidable Jean Rook in 1977, the chancellor of the exchequer, Denis Healey, claimed that his Christmas was “very ordinary, and traditional, and ritualistic”.
Actually, it was very much of its time. After the Healey family had played their party games, eaten their turkey and listened to the queen’s speech, it was time for what the chancellor called “the most marvellous ritual”, showing “the colour slides of the family since the year dot”. Few people, I suspect, do that now. But it used to be part of the Sandbrook Christmas, too, and though part of me rejoices that I no longer have to sit through all the old holiday photos, absurd hairstyles and embarrassing fashions, another part laments the disappearance of a ritual so redolent of the day before yesterday.
Perhaps the most enduring tradition of all, though, is to complain that Christmas is no longer what it used to be. “What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used… to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm,” wrote the Puritan reformer Philip Stubbes. He might have been talking about Christmas in 21st‑century Britain; in fact, he was writing about England in the 1580s.
People who love to moan that modern Christmas is too commercialised are not so different from the Civil War reformers who denounced the “carnal and sensual delights” of Yuletide and demanded that 25 December be kept for fasting and humiliation, in remembrance of Christ’s suffering and the sins of mankind. Yet, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that Oliver Cromwell played a part in banning Christmas. As a man who danced till dawn at his daughter’s wedding, Cromwell was no killjoy, and as a lover of practical jokes, he might have enjoyed pulling a cracker, putting on a paper hat and reading out some desperately unfunny joke.
Still, there is no doubt that the Commonwealth marked the nadir in Christmas’s fortunes, with ‘festival days’ outlawed, and shops ordered to stay open as normal. Most people, however, ignored the reformers’ strictures and celebrated as their forefathers had before them: in 1656, some MPs claimed that they had got little sleep on Christmas Eve because their neighbours were making noisy preparations for the big day. And once the monarchy returned, so did the festive spirit. By 1662, Samuel Pepys was gleefully dining on “a mess of brave plum porridge and a roasted pullet”, as well as a mince pie – a relatively restrained meal by the standards of the time, he noted, because his wife was not feeling well.
It is the irreligious dimension of Christmas, of course, that explains why it has survived the waning of Christian observance. Although Britain has become one of the most secular countries on earth, most right-minded people still adore the festive knees-up. Even many non-believers lustily sing Christmas carols, not out of hypocrisy, but because it’s
a ritual of collective identity in which we all can share.
And if anyone doubts that Christmas has a long and prosperous future, take a look at Birmingham’s festive German market, which began life with only 25 stalls in 2001 and is now the biggest outside Germany and Austria, with 180 stalls and a staggering three million visitors last year. Denis Healey’s slide shows may have bitten the dust, but as the people of Birmingham could tell him, a new Christmas tradition is always just around the corner.