Opinion

We have lost the true meaning of Christmas

We have lost the true meaning of Christmas

Which is, of course, the birth of Jesus Christ, or a pagan fire ceremony, or a midwinter festival, or the Roman Saturnalia, or what you will. And who is or was Santa Claus?

This piece is taken from John Radford’s Don’t You Believe It! Sixty Things Everyone Knows That Actually AIN’T SO, illustrated by Donald Rooum.

Every year, the mass media complain that Christmas is starting earlier, followed by endless features on how to survive it, etiquette for the office party, how to cook a turkey, what toys and games children want this year, the whole affair being referred to, all too often inappropriately, as “the festive season”.

At the same time those of a Christian persuasion complain that the story of the infant Jesus is being neglected, and encourage Nativity plays in schools and decorations in churches (including fir trees which have little to do with ancient Palestine). Others hold that Christians have usurped the original pagan meaning. “Santas” appear in red tunic and trousers trimmed with white “fur”, and red caps are offered in every market – “Get yer santarats ‘ere!  One pahnd yer santarats!”

Changing Christmas

If one were to travel back in time at intervals of say two hundred years, “Christmas” would be radically different at each visit. There is nevertheless some kind of continuous thread. A comprehensive account is given by Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2001).

The thread is that at least in Northern Europe the changing seasons have until very recently been of great significance for survival, and various stages in the progression, including the solstices and equinoxes, have been marked by ceremonies. Some of the most ancient monuments such as Newgrange and Stonehenge, dating back some 5,000 years, are apparently aligned on the midwinter and midsummer sun respectively. Of course we have no idea as to what took place then.

The Roman festival of Saturnalia round about the shortest day (which was not then established scientifically) was a time of feasting, giving presents, and general licence to suspend normal rules.

The Bible gives no indication of the date of Jesus’ birth, and early Christians favoured the spring. The 25th December was first definitely mentioned in 354, and this was gradually accepted over several centuries (though never by some such as the Armenian Church). It acquired the well-known trappings such as the Three Kings, perhaps transferred from the Psalms, as the Gospels specify only wise men.

Various other holy days accumulated round the 25th, 1st January was named as the day of Christ’s circumcision, and the Council of Tours in 567 ordained twelve days of Christmas. For the next thousand years many changing patterns of celebration developed, featuring, variously, religious services, feasting and drinking, songs and dances, folk plays, fires and lights, decoration with greenery of all kinds, and numerous customs and stories, with or without Christian connections.

Many were appropriate to the longed-for return of the sun and the start of a new year. But there is no real evidence for the survival of much older pagan ceremonies, such as mistletoe from its supposed use by Druids at midwinter, which seems to derive from a misunderstanding of a report by the Roman author Pliny.   Mistletoe at Christmas is recorded in Britain only from the 16th century.

Modern Christmas

Much of this ended (in Britain) with the Reformation in the 16th century and the Puritan dominance in the 17th. For a short time all celebrations were forbidden, though not forgotten. Further radical changes came with the Industrial Revolution which largely destroyed the old agricultural way of life, with its seasonal rhythms and the community holidays that went with them. But in the 19th century Christmas revived in new forms, with an emphasis now on the family rather than on religion or the seasons.

The turkey was convenient for a family meal; formerly beef had been favoured for large feasts. Prince Albert helped to popularise the Christmas tree of his homeland. Sir Henry Cole is credited with the Christmas card in 1843, and one Tom Smith with the cracker about 1847, its funny hats and silly jokes (later additions) offering a faint echo of the ancient days of topsy-turvy misrule (as sometimes does the office party). Commercial interests ever more heavily influence present giving (and buying).

The fact is that there is no “true meaning” of Christmas. It has meant, and continues to mean, many things to many people. For some a welcome or unwelcome family reunion, for some an escape to warmer climes, for some, alas, a lonely bed-sitter. No group can claim exclusive rights.

There are also complaints about the supposedly modern use of “Xmas” –”crossing Christ out of Christmas”. This can be found in 15th century printed texts, possibly as a labour saving device when each character had to be set by hand. But similar abbreviations are even earlier, such as Xpes maesse in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, originating in the 9th century.

Santa

This story begins with Saint Nicholas, who was reputedly born in what is now Turkey in 270 CE. He became in some way the patron saint of children, among other groups such as pawnbrokers, and was widely popular in Europe, in particular in Holland with the name of Sinterklaas. He visited children on the eve of his feast day (6th December) and put presents in their shoes, later stockings. (In the distant past there may possibly also lie a memory of the Norse god Woden who rode through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir.)

Dutch settlers took him to their colony of New Amsterdam, later New York, but the custom seems to have died out until in 1809 Washington Irving referred to it, using the name Santa Claus, and transferring the occasion to Christmas Eve. In 1822 Professor Clement Clark Moore produced his very popular poem A Visit from St Nicholas (“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”).

Nicholas was now more of a magical spirit of the Northern winter, with fur clothes, bushy white beard and sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, who comes down chimneys with gifts. Almost the modern version, in fact. No illustration was provided, however, until 1863, when Thomas Nast presented him as a kind of large gnome, but now equipped with his red suit trimmed with white fur, and cap (which were not, as sometimes thought, the result of his being adopted by Coca-Cola in the 1930s). Later he became more human-like.

In Britain, a figure representing Christmas featured in an entertainment by Ben Jonson in 1616, and in numerous subsequent pieces including folk plays (perhaps older in origin) over the next 250 years, as Sir or Lord or increasingly Father, Christmas. He generally personified adult feasting and fun. Charles Dickens in his best-selling A Christmas Carol (1843) represented Christmas as a jovial giant in green robes, surrounded by ample food and drink.

In the 1880s Moore’s version became popular in Britain, with a hood instead of a cap and the English name of Father Christmas. Today, he is mostly just Santa, sometimes with Claus as a surname (a film has featured a wife, Mrs Claus, and others a daughter, Annie Claus,  and a brother, Fred Claus). He appears in stores, usually for some reason in a “grotto”, though he is not now allowed to take young visitors on his knee for fear of accusations of abuse. Sad.

• John Radford is Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of East London

13 responses to “We have lost the true meaning of Christmas”

  1. Dianne Leonard says:

    I like to wish people a “Happy Saturnalia.” Here’s what happened a couple of years ago, when I was volunteering at a Library-supporting bookstore in Berkeley, California:
    Me (to customer): “Happy Saturnalia!”
    Customer: “Happy Saturnalia, huh? Why aren’t you out dancing naked in the streets for Saturnalia?”
    Me: “Because it’s too damn cold!”
    The customer admitted it was too cold (and it was raining that day as well.) Mostly people wish me a Happy Saturnalia back, or give me questioning looks. I just like to do this because it’s a wee bit subversive of the christian narrative that’s all around us.

  2. Stonyground says:

    I’ve never understood why Christians, and it is mostly Christians who come out with this real meaning of Christmas stuff, can’t celebrate Christmas in their own way and leave everyone else alone to celebrate it in theirs. There seems to be a part of human nature that wants everyone else to do things only in the way that we approve of. I’m happy to let other people just get on with their lives as long as they aren’t hurting me.

    I suppose that, until recently, Christians probably genuinely believed that Christmas really was all about the birth of Jesus, they like to point out that it was after all called CHRISTmas. In response I like to point out that our days and months are named after various Roman and Norse gods that no one believes in any more, so having the midwinter festival named after a god that no one believes in any more is hardly a problem is it?

  3. Broga says:

    I have already come across some Christmas speak when the devout Christian drops into a sombre tone of pseudo sanctimony and uses phrases like “the Christ child”; “people of faith”( this becoming irritatingly frequent); “the good news.”

  4. StephenJP says:

    This is a really great article by Prof Radford, and it deserves to be more widely circulated. I think Dickens should get at least as much credit for the trappings of Christmas as Albert. All his life he was enthused and excited by the Christmas traditions: see for instance Christmas at Dingley Dell, from Pickwick Papers, published in 1837 (when Queen Vic had only just ascended to the throne). And, on the whole, Dickens is not much interested in the Christian trappings. “A Christmas Carol”, for instance, is much more about human ill-doing, repentance and rehabilitation than concerned about conveying any explicitly religious message.

  5. Maggie says:

    Haven’t lived in the UK for many decades so it seems strange that Father Christmas is no longer a thing and it’s now the Americanised… er… Americanized name: Santa Claus.

    But then, from what I see of British TV, you’ve also lost or losing trousers (pants), accelerator (gas pedal), chips (fries), crisps (chips), films (movies), directional verbs bring/take (bring only), biscuit (cookie), shopping trolley (shopping cart), maths (math), teach you (learn you), zed (zee), ad nauseum.

  6. Broga says:

    Maggie: Indeed. We surrender so easily. And the standard of TV has plummeted to where the mindless junk level is now common. I still have a functioning and small local library and a brilliant librarian who advises and orders books for a modest price. Much better than a lot of TV.

    She also has the exceptional virtue (from my point of view) of welcoming well behaved dogs and my Labrador happily kips under a chair while I choose books. I will be giving her (the librarian, not the dog) my usual Christmas bottle of wine soon.

    One of the worst imports is added applause to deeply unfunny comedy programmes.

  7. Brian Jordan says:

    Developing Broga’s point…
    a modern manifestation of Christmas is in the relentless lowering of the (already abysmal) quality of television programmes as the celebration approaches.
    As for greetings, mine are solsticial – but I’ll wish you all a merry one later, it’s far too early yet.

  8. Broga says:

    Brian Jordan: There is also an increase in divorces following Christmas. After hours of relentless watching of junk TV while consuming booze while static on the settee the victims of the joyful time of the Christ Child’s birth wonder what the hell they are doing with their lives. In January they head for the lawyers.

  9. StephenJP says:

    Maggie, not sure which British TV programmes you’ve been watching; but I honestly can’t think of any in which your Americanised (yes, I prefer to spell it with an “s”!) usages are preferred, except maybe “fries” and perhaps “movies”. Maybe we’re watching different programmes. There are enough options, after all; rather more than strictly necessary!

  10. Stonyground says:

    I had an interesting discussion about the use of the word math rather than maths as an abbreviation for the word mathematics. My thought was that, as the long version is a plural, then the shortened version should be also. Apparently this is not the case. The s at the end of the word mathematics is not a pluralisation but an integral part of the word, much as if the word had been spelled mathematix. So shortening the word to math is more correct.

    Regarding other “Americanisms”, Many of them are words from Elizabethan English that had fallen out of use in the UK but have been preserved in the US.

  11. Stonyground says:

    Surely there is no excuse for watching shit telly in this day and age. There is so much choice and, as a consequence, better content. Personally I hardly watch any television, preferring my computer and books.

  12. Broga says:

    Stonyground: We don’t watch much. I like programmes about astronomy and archaeology which put life in perspective. “Humans are a group of biological organisms clinging temporarily to a speck of rock in a vast cosmos.”

    I watched a programme a little while back when the astronomer was asked how far away was the smudge of light on his screen. “Eight and a half billion light years ,” he said. I wondered why God had bothered to create all the billions of stars and planets if humans were his only concern.

    God is never mentioned on the astronomy programmes I have watched. Napoleon asked an astronomer why God was not mentioned. The reply, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” (As far as I remember.)

  13. StephenJP says:

    Broga, I think that would be Laplace.

    I agree absolutely with you about TV en masse. But there are are many valuable nuggets within the dross. I have just been watching the latest episode in the BBC2 series “The Blitz”, about the devastating bombing of Clydebank in 1941, which among other things led to the overnight evacuation of 45,000 people – and still the shipyards kept going. I had honestly not realised the extent of the destruction in this part of my country, and I am quite ashamed that I didn’t. I am now better educated and informed.

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