Christmas in three words…

When I was a young lad, in my more mischievous days, I would attend church with my parents. Christmas was a particularly good time to attend church, not least because the biscuits would be replaced with warm mince pies and the candle light mass, rather than the drab electric lighting, made the building take on a rather more magical feel. One particular Christmas sermon though that still stands out in my mind today was when the vicar preached about “Christmas in three words…”.

That particular year Marks and Spencer had released their Christmas advert. This was in the days before John Lewis had set the precedent for elaborate stories and adverts were simple things that featured products. And after we’d seen hansom couples wearing sweaters and children in scarves and hats, fancy food on a Christmas table in front of a roaring fire…you get the idea…a final voice over said “Christmas in three words? Marks and Spencer”. All in all it was an inoffensive portrayal of a family Christmas and an honest and clever advertising message from a much loved high street store.

Well, not so much for the vicar, who seemed to have a right old holy bee in his bonnet about this. In fact, I think the breaking point for him had been when he was stood in the queue to buy stamps (remember those?) in the post office and heard two old ladies saying to each that Christmas is “all about the children, isn’t it dearie?”. Well that was enough for the vicar’s dog collar to get in a tizz. He informed them that Christmas was in fact not about ‘the children’ and was all about the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour…who is apparently actually the messiah and not a very naughty boy as I thought…I might be getting mixed up with someone else there?!? Either way the vicar stormed off out of the post office without even buying his festive addition stamps. At least they featured some nativity scenes!

Well, his dog collar was so thoroughly in a twist that our dear old vicar felt the need discuss this issue at length with us on Christmas morning. He informed us that Christmas was not about shopping, or about the children, or even about presents and the sharing of gifts. Christmas in three words, according to our vicar, was about “the holy birth” and this was not up for negotiation.

Some fifteen years on and adverts are no less controversial, stamps are phenomenally more expensive, vicars are almost all women and some are even bishops (heaven knows what will come next!) and my mind still, for some reason, remembers that particular sermon. Now I’m not a religious man, and can’t quote the bible and nor would I want to. It certainly isn’t my bedtime reading book of choice. But as we approach Christmas once again I began to think a bit more on our long retired vicar’s sermon and how, in fact, his three words are rather inaccurate as well.

I can understand why he would get upset. Christmas isn’t just Marks and Spencer’s busiest time of year. The church receives more people at Christmas than any other time of year. In fact the holy order must rather think of it as their copyright. After all, it is the big boss man’s son’s birthday and all. But what if I was to suggest a rather more controversial Christmas in three words…’Stolen from pagans!’

The premise of the vicar’s sermon on that day was basically that Christmas should remain about the religious significance of what Christians would believe is one of the most significant moments in human history. Hence the name. But where did it come from? It is almost entirely certain that the man known as Jesus was not born on Christmas day. Basil Fawlty may or may not have had room in his Inn, and there was no census around that time as far as historians are aware. So if Joseph and Mary had decided to take the donkey express to Bethlehem it was most likely for a summer break. Even the church admit that they have no idea exactly when Jesus was born. The main reason that Christmas is celebrated in December is simple, when Christianity spread throughout Europe in the early centuries the pagan religions celebrated Yuletide. The word ‘Yule’ actually predates Christianity and is Norse in origin. The long-bearded god Odin bears the names jólfaðr (Old Norse ‘Yule father’) and jólnir (Old Norse ‘the Yule one’) – perhaps part of the beginnings of Santa Claus? When Christians marched across Europe, converting pagans, they changed Yuletide to Christmastide. Let’s be honest, it was a better way to do it than cancelling Christmas altogether…that didn’t exactly work for Oliver Cromwell either!

Along the way, some of the pagan traditions will have been absorbed as well. But the most significant thing to remember is that the winter solstice, when the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees (when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun) has actually been celebrated for thousands of years. In ancient human society this was one of the biggest parties of the year. A time to ask the gods for favour in the coming year and to thank them for the harvests past. There is no doubt that this festival, which is still observed today by some, is a big factor in what later became Yuletide and then Christmas.

So what about the other things that we associate with Christmas? The Christmas tree is an interesting one to consider. There are many theories about where they actually originated from but what is certain is that in England Queen Victoria was one of the first people to start decorating a fur tree in the modern sense. They would cover it in ornamental candles, and it was a sign of their prosperity. But long before that the tree is frequently traced to the symbolism of trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (more on that one another time, perhaps). But the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands was also common in ancient Egypt and in China and by the Hebrews. Tree worship was common among pagans and survived past the conversion to Christianity. Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year, to scare away the devil, and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime, still exist. Our vicar’s claim to Christmas is beginning to look a little shaky!

Mistletoe is another symbol of Christmas. Who doesn’t like to try and get a cheeky kiss at the party…it is the modern losers only way to get a kiss! Well Mistletoe was originally significant to druids in ancient culture, particularly in significant ceremonies like the solstice. And similarly the association of holly with winter celebrations almost certainly pre-dates Christianity. Druids wore holly wreaths on their heads as well. They loved a bit of nature those guys!

Which brings us on to our dear old friend, and what Christmas is all about for everyone under the age of ten (and a few of us a little older!)…Santa Claus. I hear people already getting on their high horse about Coca-Cola but calm down, that is a myth. Coca-Cola no more invented Santa Claus than you or I did. But the modern vision of him is in fact mostly due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. The poem is still a tradition in our house, it is the modern romantic vision of Father Christmas, Pier Noel, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas (how many names does he need?) that we all know and love. But definitely not to do with Coca-Cola. They have the modern monopoly now in Christmas adverts but that is “largely to do with lots of trucks and even more lights! “Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…”

To be fair to our vicar for a moment, the mainstay of the concept of Father Christmas is seated in St. Nicholas, the fourth century Greek Bishop who used to deliver presents to the poor. But the modern symbol bears little resemblance to him and has taken on a life of his own (literally). No matter how you look at it though, the argument that Christmas is a Christian trademark simply doesn’t stack up. So how about this for an alternative Christmas in three words, “evolved from many”?

So what is Christmas then, at the end of the day? It is a time when we all can be united in celebrating our friends, family, our fortunes, and indeed our religion if we are that way inclined. Christmas is not and cannot simply be considered a Christian festival, even if they have bullied their way into monopolizing it. The fact of the matter is that the traditions behind Christmas are just as much pagan, or ancient, as they are about the church. It is an amalgam of cultures, beliefs and traditions from not just a few centuries, but millennia. Like languages, it has evolved. We get all snooty about the use of the English language, arguing that it should remain classical, but how many of us wonder around talking like Shakespeare? And our language is about as varied as any could be. It has been bastardized and changed by centuries of influences; Roman, Viking, Saxon, Celtic, Flemish, the list is long and convoluted. Christmas is the same, it has evolved to mean many things for many people…but I am not aware of any of those things being particularly negative.

For me Christmas is about spending time with family. It is about appreciating what we have and being happy in a world that can so often be miserable. It brings us together and gives us a focus when we are often not able to get together as one at other times of the year. So what would I say now to our pent up vicar who insists Christmas is about the baby Jesus? I would say Christmas in three words, “friends and family”.

To quote a jolly fat man and his antlered friends…”Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

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