Christmas is a chameleon; over the centuries it has evolved and absorbed a myriad influences to become the festival we know today, according to the University’s Professor Mark Connelly.
He says: ‘In large part, its success is due to its amazing ability to adapt and thus maintain its cultural supremacy. This throws up another important point: the extent to which Christmas has evolved into a cultural phenomenon distinct from its religious root. Even here the riddle that is Christmas refuses an easy answer, for the Christian aspect of Christmas is itself a grafting onto a much older set of traditions answering important human needs.
‘The early Church paid no attention to the birth of Christ, which was a mere prologue detail to his ministry, death and resurrection. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, it competed with a range of pagan festivals and observances. Of particular significance to the evolution of Christmas was the prevalence of mid-winter festivals centred on the themes of regeneration, indulgence, light and inversions of order. Although shunning all such traditions, in the fourth century, Julius I, Bishop of Rome, established an alternative celebration of Christ’s birth. From this point Christmas quickly adapted these pre-existing customs and found it relatively easy to integrate them into a Christian message.
‘The veneration of light in mid-winter as a symbol of regeneration was rapidly assimilated and the inversion of normal order, as seen in the Roman Saturnalia, was turned into God made a weak, vulnerable, dependent baby. Perhaps the hardest to curb was the sense of licence to indulge in feasting and drinking, but this too could be transformed into a form of joyous hospitality celebrating brotherhood. Nonetheless, well into the early middle ages, the Christian Christmas struggled to ‘domesticate’ the wilder elements of paganism, particularly the Nordic Yule traditions.
‘Undaunted, the medieval church maintained its efforts to stamp out the pagan elements, or more accurately Christianise them. Holly, for example, was carefully transplanted from its Celtic associations with the spirits of summer and thus a counterweight to winter, to become symbolic of eternal life, the sharp leaves a reminder of the crown of thorns, and the red berries the blood of Christ spilt to liberate the world. In England, Christmas was well-established by the advent of the Tudor dynasty and many of the traditions we maintain today were in evidence.
‘A deep reaction set in during the Commonwealth when Cromwell denounced Christmas a popish-heathen practice and took firm steps to banish it. However, eradicating Christmas completely was a difficult task especially as the English-speaking world was now so disparate with large new communities in North America. From this point, distinctive, but not entirely separate, American traditions began to emerge. This was of great importance, for the nineteenth century saw the beginnings of a reconnection between the Christmas traditions of the independent United States with those of Britain, and more particularly, England.
‘This leads us to a much repeated “fact” about Christmas, namely that it was invented by the Victorians and Charles Dickens, in particular. While there is no doubting the fact that the Victorians, partly inspired by Dickens, were fascinated by the celebration of Christmas, rather than invent it lock, stock and barrel, they reinvigorated it and brought together the many, some decaying, Christmas customs and threw themselves into the season in a way not seen before.
‘Being a nation of manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers, it was not long before Victorians realised that the season with its emphasis on generosity and hospitality could be exploited for commercial possibilities. With the growth of a department store culture in Britain from the 1870s, the scene was set for a fusion of sentiment and shopping to descend every year in late November, and it wasn’t long before some began to complain. However, curbing the commercial pressure was impossible and it looks unlikely to be reversed.
‘The Second World War and the austerity years of the late forties and early fifties slowed down the commercialisation of Christmas, but certainly did not stop it altogether. Then, as rationing was relaxed in the fifties and Britons entered a period in which they “had never had it so good”, in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase, the spending spree recommenced fuelled by the power of commercial television.
‘Despite this remorseless commercialisation and despite the immense changes British society has experienced over the last fifty or so years, Christmas remains a key focal point of the year. In a world which seems to spin with ever greater speed meaning more and more people feel disoriented and dislocated, Christmas appears a constant and reassuring example that some things never change.’
Source: University of Kent