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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 December 2005, 15:12 GMT
Christmas past?
By David Cannadine

The nation's yuletide traditions are not quite what they may seem, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly column.

I hope it won't seem an unseasonably cynical way to begin when I say that I can recall exactly how it was that I ceased to believe in Father Christmas. I was seven years old, and I had just been taken to a department store in Dudley, near Birmingham, by my maternal grandfather, who wanted to give his only grandson a seasonal treat.

Little did he realise what the unfortunate consequences of his wholly well-intended action would turn out to be. I duly encountered Father Christmas in his grotto in Dudley, where he was surrounded and supported by other festive hangers on. I shook his hand, listened to his deep, warm-hearted and wholly synthetic laugh, was given a small present, and I went on my way.

The trouble was that two weeks before, and (I think) unknown to my grandfather, I had already visited another Father Christmas with my parents, in a similar store and in a similar setting in Birmingham, where I had gone through exactly the same sort of seasonal ritual and festive routine.

How could it be, I wondered, in the light of my second visit, that there were two Father Christmases, to be found in two different locations? On my return from Dudley, I put this rather precocious and (no doubt) irritating question to my parents and to my grandparents.

'Yuletide upstart'

After a few moments of anxious thought and an understandably huddled conversation, they offered the ingenious response that there was, indeed, only one true and real Father Christmas, who for most of the time resided somewhere in Greenland or north of there.

But he was so impossibly busy at this time of year, accumulating the presents to put down the chimneys, and recruiting the reindeer to give him motive power, that he had to call on the assistance and support of local earthly representatives - at least in places like Dudley and Birmingham. Nice try, I thought at the time. But I was not convinced by such arguments then, and I have never believed in Father Christmas since.

Sooner or later, of course, all children learn that Father Christmas isn't real: it's part of the process of growing up. It may be true for some of them that Christmas is never quite as magical an event again, and I hope I'm not disillusioning any young (or perhaps not-so-young) listeners by making this point now.

In any case, in the long history of celebrating the twenty fifth of December, which by definition has gone on for the best part of two millennia, Father Christmas is a relatively recent interloper on the festive season - more venerable, to be sure, than the Queen's speech or the Nutcracker ballet or Morecambe and Wise on television, but still something of a Yuletide upstart.

Replaced the chicken on the Christmas table

But then, there's a great deal about the supposedly "traditional" Christmas which, on closer inspection, turns out to be nothing of the kind: for many of the rituals and customs that we now associate with it have been created and evolved during my own lifetime, which (I hope you'll agree) makes them relatively modern rather than venerably ancient.

Of course, the stories of the Wise Men bearing gifts, of the shepherds journeying to the manger, and of the virgin birth in the stable at Bethlehem, are as old as (if not older than) the gospels themselves. But whatever its subsequent religious connotations, the origins of Christmas are far from being exclusively Christian.

In the northern hemisphere, the cold dark days of December and January have always been a time when light and drink and food and cheer are more necessary than ever: hence the Roman feast of Saturnalia, and the Germanic celebration of Yule, which were gradually merged with the Christian story of the Nativity between the fourth and the sixth centuries.

From then on, Christmas expanded and flourished across the medieval world, and by Tudor and early Stuart times, there were often lavish junketings, with presents, plays, games, feasts and processions - but not with Father Christmas.


This may seem a festive celebration closely akin to those that go on in our own time, but there was a sudden and abrupt hiatus in the mid seventeenth century. For the Puritans deeply disliked the cult of Christmas: they equated it with the twin evils of popery and royalty, and they feared it meant people might enjoy themselves too much.

As a result, this once-elaborate festival withered away, so that by the early nineteenth century, the critic and writer Leigh Hunt thought Christmas was "scarcely worth a mention". And this was a widely shared view.

At about the same time, the committee of the Carlton Club, which in those days ran the Conservative Party, arranged an ordinary business meeting on Christmas Day itself, on the grounds that the members would be both able and willing to attend - not perhaps a practice that that David Cameron should consider reviving now.

As we know it and celebrate it today in Britain, the traditional, "old fashioned" Christmas, is largely an invention of the last century and a half. The first major phase of innovation came during the 1840s, when cards, mistletoe, pantomime and presents were introduced or in some cases re-introduced.


Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and Prince Albert popularized the practice of decorating Christmas trees.

They were nothing to do with Britain, but they helped remind Albert of the German pine forests where he had grown up. The result was a revival of the British Christmas as a great expression of middle class family values, exalting social harmony, stressing (however implausibly) universal participation, and acclaiming charitable gestures by the rich towards the poor.

The last quarter of the 19th Century saw a second and even more innovative phase in the making of the modern festive season, with the revival of carol singing, the exchanging of gifts on 25 December rather than on 1 January, and the importation of Father Christmas himself, partly indebted to the European tradition of St Nicholas, and partly influenced by American commercialism.

Since then, festive invention has continued and intensified. Consider the so-called traditional service of nine lessons and carols, which is broadcast by the BBC every year on Christmas Eve, from the chapel of King's College, Cambridge. It may seem authentically ancient. But the service was originally devised by Bishop Benson at Truro Cathedral in the 1880s, and it only reached Cambridge after World War I, when it became a celebration of order and hierarchy in the aftermath of five years of chaos and conflict.


The inter-war years witnessed another significant and long-lived innovation, in the form of the monarch's Christmas broadcast, to what was then called the British Empire and to what is now called the Commonwealth. These transmissions began in 1932, during the reign of King George V, and their impact was, initially, magical, as the King-Emperor himself spoke to his subjects around the world in the domestic intimacy of their own homes.

Earlier this year, I found myself in the small market town of Longford, in Tasmania, and it didn't take much to get a sense of what it must have been like, 70-odd years ago, to cluster round the wireless listening to George V saying, as he did, 'the king is speaking to you'. So successful were these broadcasts that the king's son, George VI, was obliged to keep them going, despite his stammer, and so has the present queen, whose message was first televised in 1957.

Since the end of World War II, this 'traditional' British Christmas has continued to develop and evolve. Carols by candlelight, and trees in public places, festooned with white fairy lights from top to bottom, are very much a post 1945 innovation, as in the case of the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, which is a gift from the people of Norway in recognition of the support Britain gave that country after Hitler's invasion.

Britain is the one of the most godless countries in Europe, yet it also has some of the longest Christmas holidays

It's only in the same period that turkey has replaced chicken as the most popular festive fare on our tables, and the Nutcracker ballet has become an established part of the holiday season in New York and London.

Of course, the very idea of 'the holiday season', as distinct from Christmas, is both an innovation and, in certain quarters, an abomination, especially in the United States, where battle is joined between those termed the religious right and those now derided as the secular fundamentalists.

Yet even in the heyday of the British Empire, the majority of the king-emperor's subjects were more likely to be Hindus or Muslims than Christians, and no one ever thought to ask what they must have made of his Christmas and Christian broadcast.

And today, in terms of church attendance, Britain is the one of the most godless countries in Europe, yet it also has some of the longest Christmas holidays. As we tuck into our yuletide turkey, and as we pull our festive crackers, we would do well to ponder what conclusions we should be drawing from that.


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