Caveat: I’m no historian, and some of this may be a bit inaccurate, but I’ve checked a lot of it.
It’s lunchtime and I’m seething in a coffee shop, having been run over by a cavalcade of child perambulatory devices and John Lewis carrier bags.
Long before Christianity had begun, the peoples of Europe were already getting pissed in December (or whatever passed for it in any given epoch). There is strong evidence from neolithic and bronze age finds in the British Isles, that vast gatherings of people occurred, accompanied by the slaughter of cattle and drinking of fermented drinks. The Winter Solstice has always been important to folk across the globe. It marks the longest night and a turn in the tide as we begin the long climb to spring from the depths of the cold. Most cultures have some kind of Winter Solstice celebration; Yule in Scandinavian and Germanic cultures, possibly to celebrate the Wild Hunt; Brumalia, when the Romans would get hammered in the name of Bacchus. Just a couple of pertinent examples, but more here. One would imagine these observances go back as far as humanity itself, but that’s purely conjecture.
So what’s important about Christmas? I’ve been trying to work it out. Christmas, for me, the day itself is lovely. I get to spend time with family, drink, get fat, not worry about work or politics or anything else that normally irks me. The run up to it though, now starting around late October, almost ruins it for me every year, and every year it becomes worse. I’m not religious at all, though I do not vilify those that are, but Christianity has very little to do with the ‘Christmas’ that we in the West now associate with the 25th December.
As I mentioned before, pagan Europe was big up for the Winter Solstice already, so when the Romans spread Catholicism everywhere, they did so cannily. They adopted certain pagan rituals and festivals so as to make it easier for the local yokels to get on board with the new, hip religion du jour. The Eastern Church was strongly of the belief that Christ was born on the 6th January, whereas the Catholics were very much of the opinion that it was the 25th (or the 28th) of December. That fitted in perfectly with the solstice celebrations, so they incorporated the activities of festivals like Yule (getting pissed and dragging logs about), Koleda (singing and dancing about around fires, probably pissed), and Saturnalia (giving people gifts). Between 354 and about 400CE, the Eastern Church accepted and rejected the 25th variously.
In the early middle ages we developed Advent, the forty days of Saint Martin, before Christmas. The Italians began incorporating bits of Saturnalia into it and by the 12th Century, they had slipped into the Twelve Days of Christmas. By this time, we’ve gone from nothing to a mishmash of pagan traditions and old Roman festivals. As we approach the Reformation, you can add to that Carols, holly and ivy.
After the Protestant Reformation, nutters like the Puritans actually rejected Christmas entirely. It was even banned briefly in 1647 after Cromwell’s loonies decked Charlie boy. There were riots and all sorts of nonsense over that. It was eventually repealed after Charles II was restored in 1660. Scotland’s Presbytarian Church banned Christmas before that and Scottish Parliament purged it outright in 1640. Christmas wasn’t a public holiday in Scotland, officially again until 1958!
Christmas became very out of favour with most of Christianity outside of Catholicism for a very long time. In fact, in the UK and even in America, Christmas was a fairly non-eventful church observance until Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’. Carols had had a resurgence recently you see. Most of those that you know were written in the 19th Century. Dickens practically invented the ‘modern’ tradition of family feasts, saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and all of that stuff. The very same year (1843), Christmas cards were produced commercially for the first time. Earlier on in the century, George III had married into the Hanoverian line and England had its first taste of chopping down Nordic pine trees and putting them indoors. When Victoria and Albert started doing it, well, it became all the rage. By the end of the 19th Century America had got hold of this bizarre ritual as well, and almost all of Christmas as we know it had been built.
The only thing left is Father Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is the 6th of December. It’s part of the old Advent cycle and is the traditional day for giving of gifts. Some time in the late mediaeval period, that got changed to the 24th December, but I don’t know why and I’m running out of lunch break to find out. The Dutch, Sinterklaas (such a great word) bears a lot of resemblance to Odin; and old dude wandering the earth, appears at solstice, all that jazz. Sinterklaas eventually gets corrupted to Santa Klaus via all sorts of linguistic tricks, but the persona is there and the tradition of giving gifts in his name.
In England in the 16th Century a figure called Father Christmas turns up around the same time as the gift giving fun moves to 25th December. He was a big fatty in green or red robes, rode a goat and got pissed a lot. What a dude. Again, no time to research his exact origins, but I will.
At some point, the legends of Sinterklaas and Father Christmas converge and we begin to have the image we all know now. (No, Coca-Cola didn’t invent him or his image, they weren’t even the first drinks company to steal his image). The rest of the mythology fell into place from various fiction produced in the early 20th Century.
So, we’re around 1940 by now and we have everything, we’ve got cold, dark, food, booze, parties, dancing, singing, exchanging pressies, trees in the house, holly, ivy, and a big fat dude that breaks and enters and steals your mince pies. That’s Christmas. And that’s what I’m OK with. I love all of that stuff, contrived as it is.
But that’s not enough is it?
Advertising, marketing and rampant consumerism are the hallmarks of Christmas in the 21st Century (and for most of the 20th). I sat today in town and watched a procession of red-faced, angry, mortally stressed men and women storming around a town where every available section of pavement has a shed on it, while someone peddles craft goods from them. Queues of folk arguing over tat in BHS, over-priced tat in John Lewis and making their singular foray into a book shop for the year. Why? Why are people so infected with a sanctimonious need to prove themselves by emptying all of their earthly savings into retailers to buy junk that will be forgotten come the new year? I went into BHS… I think it was BHS… Anyway, the place is stacked floor to ceiling with utter, utter shite. A beer-backpack, novelty bottle openers, a bloody Heinz sauce gift set. What the merry shit? iPhones, Kindles, Samsung Tablets, massive TVs for teenagers, XBoxes, Playstations. When did it become a competition to see how impoverished we can become, pandering to the avarice of our materialistic children?
If that’s what Christmas has become, fuck Christmas, with a rake.
I want Christmas back from the materialists. Yes, I’ve just detailed that the whole of the bizarre franken-tradition we’ve developed is completely contrived and artificial, but at least it was relatively wholesome. Turning Christmas over to ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’, where people have actually died in the pursuit of nauseating materialism, cheapens it to a level that makes me feel physically sick.
Christmas doesn’t belong to Amazon, Apple, Samsung or Sony, it doesn’t really belong to the Christians per se, they just named it; It belongs to us. People. Individuals and families. Not mine, not yours, everybody’s, together. Or apart, as you see fit. My point is, it’s not something that can be prescribed.
This year, as with every year in recent times, I’m going to make things to give away as gifts, as much as possible. The gift giving is certainly an important part of it, but it’s such a tiny part. It’s just stuff kids, it’s not important. People are important, don’t forget it.