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Should we idealise Christmas past?

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By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The bemoaning of the commercialised, anodyne, mass-produced Christmas is a familiar refrain. But are we right to idealise the Christmases of the past?

Christmas isn't like it used to be.

Many of us, having finished our trudged marathon beneath the flickering fluorescent lights of the supermarket aisles and the crowded concourses of the shopping malls, can take no more.

Recreation of a Victorian drawing room at Christmas 1870 (picture courtesy Chris Radley/Geffrye Museum)

Some of us berate ourselves for having taken part in the decline of Christmas. Christmas is too commercialised. Christmas isn't enough about the family. We watch too much television at Christmas. We work too much.

What are our thoughts of ideal Christmas? Of roaring open fires, walks in the snow, delighted children, nuclear families united in festive fun. Many of us hark back to Christmases of long ago.

These are Christmases we were not alive for, but have experienced through the prism of festive celluloid. Whether it's Alastair Sim in Scrooge or James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, we bombard ourselves with nostalgia for Christmases past.

A 1930s Christmas (picture courtesy Steve Speller/Geffrye Museum)

But harking back to a Victorian Christmas of homemade toys and modest consumption might not be entirely justified.

"Excess and a big blow out - you can take it back to the pre-Christian Christmas," says Bill Purdue, co-author of The Making of the Modern Christmas.

"There has always been this conspicuous consumption aspect."

Nor is the apparent dislocation between a secularised commercial-tinged version of Christmas and the religious festival an entirely new thing. But those who campaign for a return to a Christmas that was a celebration of Jesus' birth, and nothing more, may have the wrong end of the stick.

A 1960s Christmas (picture courtesy Steve Speller/Geffrye Museum)

"The assumption underneath those campaigns is I wish we could go back to that pure spiritual holiday before we ruined it in the last century or so," says Bruce David Forbes, lecturer in religious studies at Morningside College, author of Christmas: A Candid History and an ordained minister.

"But it has always been a winter festival and a spiritual occasion."

The pre-Christian winter festival acted as a psychological boost, a time to slaughter the fatted calf.

Even in later times, Christmas would still have served this function.

"My impression [even] of the medieval or reformation era celebrations is that it was [about] trying to get through the winter," Dr Forbes adds.

And those who have a problem with the endless round of office parties and the boozy carousing of a modern Christmas will find it has its antecedents.

DAILY UNIVERSAL REGISTER 1787
Let the larder be well stuffed with provisions. Let the cellar be well stored with liquors, and let there be plenty of fuel to make roaring fires - for Christmas is come... there should not only be enough to eat, and enough to drink, but also enough to give away. When the heart rejoices in the hour of conviviality, it should be remembered, that thousands are oppressed with grief.
Christmas Day editorial in forerunner of Times, 1787

You can trace the history of Christmas back to Saturnalia, the Roman festival where everything was turned on its head. The slave would act the master and vice versa. Presents were exchanged within families.

Even if we go on to the Middle Ages we would find a Christmas that differed from the Victorian vision.

"Victorians romanticised childhood and put them at the centre of things," says Mr Purdue.

"Pre-Victorian Christmases were social in the wider sense - less the nuclear family, more adult, more convivial."

Mr Forbes concurs with this vision.

"It wasn't so family centred it could be wilder instead of this wonderful sweet celebration at home. You might go to a special church service and drink at the tavern."

Puritan party poopers

The rise to dominance of Puritanism during the English Civil War led to a period of sporadic assaults on the Christmas tradition.

"When Puritans opposed Christmas they felt the partying had taken over," says Dr Forbes.

Christmas dinner, 1965
For nearly two centuries Christmas has been all about the nuclear family

By the end of the 18th Century, Christmas had declined in importance as a holiday. But in the 19th Century it enjoyed a resurgence in Britain that spread across the Atlantic and helped shape the way much of the world celebrates it today.

Charles Dickens played a big part in it, setting out in his novels a vision of Christmas that people could re-engage with.

"Although many would say Dickens was the inventor of the Victorian Christmas, he based it very much on the 18th Century - stagecoaches in snowy lanes, jovial landlords, squires giving presents to the poor and presiding over groaning tables," says Mr Purdue.

Recreation of loft apartment circa Christmas 1998
People now are under pressure to have the perfect magazine Christmas

One of the key aspects for us about Christmas is a break from work - a couple of weeks for the luckiest. But in Victorian times Christmas Day was often just another day of grimy toil.

And there were plenty of new traditions. The tree, the turkey, Christmas cards and crackers all came to a prominent place in the celebrations.

Many believe it was Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who first brought the German Christmas tree concept to Britain. The idea of a fir tree festooned with decorations and candles did not immediately catch on, having to wait until its enthusiastic adoption by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Turkey had been in the country for centuries, but only in the 19th Century started to make its journey to Christmas meal hegemony, finally achieved after World War II.

Christmas in the 1970s
Present giving dates back at least to the Romans

If there is one significant element that truly can be said to have been lost from the Christmas experience it is the exhortations to a personal brand of charity.

Go back 150 years, and the Christmas Eve editorial in the Times cried out: "We do not take Christmas as the theme of a cheerful carol, but as the text of a solemn appeal to the humanity and kindlier sympathies of those whom providence has blessed with more abundant means."

In the post-war years we have added fresh ritual to the celebration, such as the "Christmas film". And every time we moan after a festive mission to the supermarket, we are in touch with the ancients. Our nostalgia is part of the historic thread of Christmases.

"It is innate," says Mr Purdue. "The best Christmases are the ones of our childhood. They are never quite as good as they were then. We idealise.

"And one of the traditions is complaining about the commercialisation of Christmas."

The enlarged images above were taken at the Geffrye Museum's annual Christmas Past exhibition which explores how Christmas has been celebrated in English homes over the past 400 years.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I am 64, years of age, so I remember the austerity times after WWII. Xmas was wonderful for us children. I appreciated new books, a cap gun or a pop gun and games. A small bar of chocolate an orange I was in heaven. I don't blame today's kids it was a different world then not better just very different.
Charles J Jaggers, Glynneath, Wales

Christmas nowadays has lost the magic and innocence because we are in a materialistic, must-have world. Children today have too much every day, all year round, so Christmas is not that special. As a child there was no decorations or tree up on going to bed on Christmas Eve but coming downstairs on Christmas morning the sitting room had been transformed into a colourful grotto of decorations. We cannot live in the past but we can remember good times which Christmas was then.
Tim Mcmahon, Pennar, Wales

I had fantastic Christmases as a child but now at the age of 26 they are more family orientated than ever. Every year i make sure i have two weeks off from work and during the festive period my family takes it in turns to have parties and we barely ever turn the box on. It is without doubt my favourite time of year.
John Butler, Grantham

Only twenty years ago I was fortunate to enjoy the tradition of "things being turned upside down", of "masters" serving "servants". As bar manager in a hotel run and owned by an Italian family, I (with other staff) worked hard on Christmas day serving the Christmas Dinner customers. A few days later, the hotel was shut down for a night where the staff were treated to a sumptuous meal served by the owner and his family. Thanks to Mr Aldo Spella and his family for this wonderful festive memory.
Malcolm Littlemore, Port Glasgow

I think the best Christmases are the ones we create now - for our parents and our children, just like the ones they made for us, so that our children can remember their best Christmases - lots of love, family, decorations, treats. Wont cost a lot, but great fun.
Udayan B, Kolkata, India

I have never liked Christmas, not even in childhood. Food I don't care for, tacky decorations, and worst of all the concept of being happy "because it's Christmas" rather than for any of the good reasons I do have for being happy. Bah, humbug!
Megan, Cheshire UK



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