The English Christmas

By A.W. (Bill) Purdue

The modern English Christmas owes much to the repackaging of Christmas by the Victorians, who centred the festival on the family and on the indulgence of children, and, indeed,  much of our idea of a ‘traditional Christmas’, with Christmas cards, a Father Christmas bringing presents to children, and, that importation from German traditions , the Christmas tree,  date from the nineteenth century. It is to a family Christmas, the humble  celebrations of the Cratchit family,  that Scrooge, having been converted to benevolence,  brings good cheer. But behind this home and family concept of Christmas lie older Christmases, which exert an enduring influence, for the English Christmas is multi-layered.

The medieval Christmas in England represented a synthesis between Christianity and pagan festivals, in which the birth of Christ mingled with residual pagan beliefs in the need to eat, drink and be merry at the darkest and most barren time of the year, with greenery brought indoors and great fires burning in the hope of fertility to come. This Christmas was a gregarious and largely adult affair, held amidst the laden tables of baronial halls, and was imbued with the concept of a time of license and the suspension of the normal rules of society, with the festivities being presided over, not by the usual figures of authority, but by boy-bishops, jesters and, what were known as ‘Lords of Misrule’, whose name epitomises the anarchic nature of the celebrations, while mummers waited at the gate. Some dignitaries of the Church accepted this Christmas as a necessary release of energy but others condemned its emphasis upon merriment as encouraging pagan and lustful appetites.

The puritans of the Commonwealth attempted to abolish Christmas on the grounds that there was no biblical evidence for the date of the birth of Christ and that the festivities encouraged immorality, but Christmas was popular and was re-established with the monarchy. The Christmas which survived is the one of which an idealised version continues to be printed on many Christmas cards: laden coaches, making their way down snow-covered lanes or stopping at inns with jovial landlords , on their way to rural manor houses, where paternal squires entertain friends and tenants to the twelve days of Christmas, while wives and daughters administer  to the needs of the poor and sick . It was this ‘Old Christmas’, perhaps in its last years in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, that so attracted the American writer, Washington Irving, and is described so fondly in Charles Dickens’  depiction of Christmas at Dingley Dell in Pickwick Papers. It is ironic, that, if today we feel nostalgia for the Christmas that the Victorians did so much to create, a major strand in the making of the Victorian Christmas was the nostalgia that Dickens and other nineteenth century writers felt for the previous English Christmas. The gap between older versions of a more gregarious and more adult-orientated Christmas and the more sentimental family Christmas with its emphasis upon home and children is bridged in Dickens’s works, for, if the influential A Christmas Carol seems overall to contain a very different attitude to Christmas to that of Pickwick Papers, it retains a sorrow at the passing of the merrier Christmas past as portrayed by the description of ‘Mr Fessiwig’s Ball’.

The emergent Victorian Christmas was, no doubt, more suitable for an urban and commercial society and one which valued domesticity but the older spirits of Christmas kept peeping out with kisses under the mistletoe and the sauciness of pantomimes. Vestiges of the ‘Lord of Misrule’ and the ‘world turned upside down’, linger today  in the office party and the custom of officers waiting on other ranks on Christmas Day. That central figure of the modern Christmas, Father Christmas, is an amalgam of many traditions and he owes much to the poem, A Visit from St Nicholas, by the American writer Clement Moore,  but the  merriment, jollity  and good cheer of the plump, rubicund  figure with his ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’ point to older English Christmas spirits and to Lords of Misrule.

Christmas lights, the candles or electric lights upon trees, the carefully arranged illuminated decorations in high streets, and the more recent enthusiasm for houses to be lit up like ships awaiting review with flickering reindeer prancing upon their roofs, are reminders  of the need of earlier generations of humanity  in the dark winters of the North, but also in the Roman Empire where  the worship of the sun-god, Mithras flourished, to hope for renewal and the return of the fertile sun. That this basic urge was enlisted for commercial purposes by the entrepreneurs of late-nineteenth century shop-keeping and the civic pride of towns, should not blind us to its ancestry amidst the Yule logs and tapers of medieval halls.

In an age of high emigration and of empire, Victorians were fascinated by the concept of Christmas in far way places and of Christmas gatherings in warmer climates and by thoughts of soldiers celebrating the festival amidst hardship and battle. That contradictory and complex institution, the English Christmas, has been exported to every part of the world where the English have settled.

A.W. (Bill) Purdue is a Visiting Professor in History at the Northumbria University and co-author with J.M. Golby of The Making of the Modern Christmas.

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