It is December, and the battle for Christmas is well underway. There was a marvellously provocative article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph which claimed that all religion is delusion, but that abandoning Christmas is more or less the beginning of the end of life as we know it. I won’t link to it, as I don’t think it really had anything to say. Nonetheless, Christmas as an annual event becomes one of the most hotly disputed topics every year.
Key questions of 2015 include:
- Aldi versus John Lewis: who wins our hearts and minds on TV (or will it be that German advert?)
- Happy holidays or Merry Christmas? Does it matter what you say, and does anyone in the UK actually say ‘happy holidays’ anyway?
- Should we insist that Christmas is a Christian festival, or should we (with a little more knowledge) simply say that it is a pagan festival which was for a while Christianised?
- Did Coca Cola really invent Santa Claus? Should we stick with a more British ‘Father Christmas?’
- What is the correct number of Christmas films to be shown per day during December? 15? Or is that substandard these days?
- Will parents be allowed to take pictures at the Nativity this year?
- Are we really going to have 30 days of snow and a White Christmas? Or will it just be early winter as usual?
- Does any of this really matter? Wouldn’t we be better just not over-spending and over-eating this year?
- And, finally, what does the story of ‘no room at the inn’ and the flight to Egypt have to say about our treatment of refugees today?
A little background: Christmas is not pagan, but it’s not really Christian either
Like probably everyone else, I was taught in junior school that Christmas was originally the pagan festival of the solstice, that the Christian version comes from the Roman Saturnalia, mixed in with the Old English Yule, and all the stuff about robins, Christmas trees, mistletoe, Father Christmas and so on is just paganism. In the mean time, I was taught in Sunday School that the true meaning of Christmas was the baby Jesus, and everything else was pure commercialism.
A few years ago, I decided to look into the matter and get a firm grip on what it all really was.
First, bad news for the neo-pagans, good news for the traditionalists: there was no Roman festival on 25 December, or, at least, none until one was invented centuries into the Christian era, and, even then, there’s no actual evidence it was ever celebrated. The Roman Saturnalia, which did involve giving presents (though lots of festivals across the year did as well) finished on the 23rd of December. The festival of Sol Invictus, which was on 25 December, is first attested in 354 AD1, in a Christian calendar. Not much is known about it, although the cult of Sol Invictus had been established in 274 AD by Aurelian. There was a rather more successful attempt to get the Christians and others to synchronise their dates with the introduction of Sunday as a day of shared worship between Christians and adherents of Sol Invictus2.
As for Yule, we don’t actually know much concrete about the Anglo-Saxon festival of Yule, except that what we call ‘December’ was known as ‘Before Yule’, Ærra Geola, while our January was ‘After Yule’, Æftera Geola. The first real reference (and it’s Norse, not Anglo-Saxon) we have to an exact date comes in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, in the Saga of Hakon the Good, who is credited with moving Yule to the 25th of December to coincide with the Christian Christmas. Whether you believe that it was Hakon who actually did this, it seems evident that Snorri is curating a memory of the change of date of Yule, and giving it a historical explanation (a fairly standard thing for Snorri to do).
Second, good news for the traditionalists, bad news for the ‘Christ-only Christmas’ people: Christmas as we know it isn’t especially Christian either, nor is it especially old. Check the dates on most of the carols we sing, and you will see that they are generally 19th century. Some are older, and a very few, including O Come O Come Immanuel and Personent Hodie, are descendants of medieval hymns. Snow, robins, and songs putting the two together are Victorian. In fact, our endless fascination with a White Christmas largely comes from Victorian illustrations. The turkey (or goose), the stuffing, the trimmings and even the Christmas tree are all Victorian.
A word on Christmas trees. My wife, being Frisian, was taught in school that when Saint Boniface came to Frisia in 716, he chopped down a pagan sacred tree, declared that it was now a Christmas tree, and so began the whole Christmas tree thing. According to a more or less contemporary account, Boniface did indeed chop down a pagan sacred tree, but it was an oak, not a conifer, and no mention was ever made of Christmas trees. They were in fact brought to these shores by Prince Albert, and, as far as we can make out, were something protestant Christians started to use during the reformation, partly to identify their celebrations as distinct from Roman Catholic ones.
Third, the ‘Christian’ Christmas we celebrate is not all that close to the accounts given in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. As most people these days know, the ‘three kings’ weren’t kings, and they weren’t three. The Gospel account is that wise men from the East brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. At what point someone decided that three gifts = three givers, and expensive gifts = kings, is not known, but the carol ‘We three kings of orient are…’ has an awful lot more to do with popular conceptions than the original accounts do. Likewise, there’s no particular reason to believe that the birth of Christ, as described in the Gospels, was in the winter. Even if it was, this was Palestine, not North Yorkshire, and it would not have been ‘bleak’. Christina Rosetti’s wonderful carol ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ contains some lovely sentiment, and some rather good theology in the final verse, but earth would not have stood ‘hard as iron’ nor ‘water like a stone’. Snow, almost certainly, had not fallen ‘snow on snow’.
Our nativity plays make much of Joseph and Mary wandering round Bethlehem being turned away at each inn and finally giving birth in a stable. All the Gospels tell us is: “She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”3.
Christmas carols and nativity plays conjure up powerful images of what Christmas meant to the Victorians, and represent a strong imaginative response to ‘what it would have been like if Jesus had been born somewhere near Warwick in 1834’. The people in our nativity plays may have tea-towels round their heads, but what we have is a fundamentally British reimagining.
Not surprisingly, very few of our traditions are shared elsewhere, except in the USA. I was astonished, when I first lived in Belgium (though I am now astonished that I was astonished) to discover that almost nothing of what I thought was ‘traditional’ Christmas existed in the French or Dutch speaking worlds. People did sing carols, but they were largely different carols: Il est né le divine enfant, not Hark the Herald, or Ere Zij God, not Once in Royal David’s City. The festivities were early in December, for Sint Niklaas. Christmas celebrations were held on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. Turkey? No. Stockings? No. Father Christmas? Absolutely not. In fact, I once tried to arrange a bit of Christmas promotion by churches in the city of Ghent using Father Christmas. A number of people took me on one side and told me that this was not appropriate, though I think they were more worried about an Anglo-Saxon invasion than a pagan one.
A British Value?
Aside from queuing and not complaining in shops, Christmas probably qualifies for being one of the only genuinely British contributions to the world. British Christmas, that is: others have their own Christmases, which are quite different, and sometimes on different days. It’s now been amalgamated with American Christmas, which brings in Santa Claus instead of Father Christmas, reflecting Germanic input into that melting pot of nations. Coca Cola is widely credited with inventing the modern version, though all it really did was popularise one colour scheme. There are plenty of Victorian illustrations of Father Christmas aka Santa Claus in red, although he is sometimes seen wearing green and other colours.
British Christmas, though, is a very instructive cultural phenomenon for us to look at. Trees, decorations (frugally saved from year to year), lots of hot, fatty, plentiful and relatively inexpensive food, carol singing from door to door, giving of (originally) inexpensive gifts in bright wrapping, cards (a legacy of the rise of Royal Mail). Our Christmas is the very best of the Victorian age, frozen in time, and upgraded with ever more expensive gifts, dramatic light shows, and the inevitable email round-robin letters. Christmas was a good time to be ‘poor but happy’, though, as often as not, it has transmuted into a time to be substantially less poor, and significantly less happy. Retailers rely on us overspending at Christmas to balance their annual books. Many people will face a financial slump in January. Parents who, for whatever reason, are not able to spend lavishly, feel guilty and worried that they are not doing right by their children.
One piece of good news should allay these rather sombre thoughts. Contrary to popular opinion, suicide rates do not rise particularly at Christmas. On the other hand, Accident and Emergency departments are these days invariably overloaded, and that trend is getting worse, not better.
Time to celebrate Christmas like never before, to recover its original meaning, or to just let it go?
To read the papers (and the Facebook memes), it’s either time to celebrate the quintessentially British Christmas like never before, or else to strip it back to Jesus in the manger (with an indeterminate number of wise men who arrived long after the manger episode was over), or to abandon the whole thing.
Which should we do? Which can we do?
In one of its more infamous interludes, Birmingham City Council announced a few years ago that it was doing Winterval, rather than Christmas. This has been spun and respun by press officers and commentators so many times that many people believe it was an urban myth. However, I was living in Birmingham at the time, remember it well, and can confirm that this really did take place, and it really did cause an outcry — especially when it was put about that this was in order not to offend Muslims and Sikhs. I recall that a group of ethnic minority community leaders wrote to Birmingham CC to point out that they were not offended by Christmas at all, and to request that they were kept out of it. I followed the story for several weeks in the Birmingham Evening Mail (as it then was), the Birmingham Post and on the radio. I’m sure it got spun well above what it was ever meant to be, and Birmingham City Council later stated that it had never been meant to replace Christmas, but merely to brand all of the winter activities together. Nonetheless, the attempt did not go down well.
In a sort of parallel-universe version of this, I’ve been getting memes on Facebook for months now (literally, since September) asking me to ‘Share if you say ‘Merry Christmas’—Don’t give in to ‘Happy Holidays”. To the very best of my knowledge, no one in Britain has ever said to me ‘Happy Holidays’, nor have I ever been criticised for saying ‘Happy Christmas’, though I do remember a fight about corporate Christmas cards once, and what they should say. ‘Happy Holidays’ is an American phenomenon, and reflects the separation of church and state, rather than any take-over by leftists, atheists or people from non-Christian religious backgrounds.
The lesson of this, though, I think is that Christmas is here to stay. Even if the church abandoned it, John Lewis, Lidl, Aldi and the others would keep it going through their ever more elaborate advertisements. What Coca Cola understood years ago (and they are the ones with the ‘Holidays are Coming’ rather than ‘Christmas is coming’ advertisements) is that if you can associate your products with the festive season, the available profits are vast.
Should hard-line Christians, then, go on marches demanding that Christmas® is © Christ, and should no longer be used for any secular purpose? I’ve heard a lot about this from atheists, but relatively little from Christians themselves. Churches are generally madly busy organising carol services, carol singing, Sunday School parties, Christmas collections and street events to have any time to do any protesting. Of course, if anyone does want to have a bit of a rant, there’s usually airspace for them, simply because newspapers need controversy. “Christmas going to be great again, says Vicar,” is hardly going to make the front page.
There’s a rather good meme going around Facebook at the moment, though, sadly, it is barely more accurate than the run-of-mill memes you usually get. It’s about the irony of celebrating two Palestinian refugees trying to find shelter two-thousand years ago, while not doing anything about the refugees on our doorstep today.
It’s factually incorrect: Joseph and Mary weren’t refugees at the time, and, notwithstanding the carols and Nativity plays, there isn’t much about them finding shelter. However, Joseph, Mary and Jesus did go on to become refugees a couple of years later, when they fled to Egypt. The meme could do with a bit of refining, but the underlying premise is sound: it is ironic that we should be celebrating Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Humans while being unwilling to welcome in refugees who are shivering in Calais as winter closes in. This is really not a political point, unless we politicise it ourselves. Notwithstanding the posturings of Donald Trump and others on the American right, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about light in darkness, loving enemies, and undeserved forgiveness.
I love Christmas, and will celebrate it in many different ways this year. Christmas, though, is the beginning but not the end of the Christian hope. One reason why the origins of Christmas as a festival are a little bit obscure is because the early Christians put so much more emphasis on Good Friday and Easter. The baby in the manger is good will and great joy, but it is the man who gives his life for others, defeats death and returns that is the essential, core and unmistakeable centre of Christian belief.