X Close

The mysterious power of Christmas

As opinions and social norms change, there remains a deep core to Christmas. Credit: Getty

December 25, 2023 - 8:00am

There is something special about Christmas Eve. The fevered and sometimes stressful preparation is mostly over; all that remains is a glorious anticipation, a feeling that everything has been building to a wonderful moment which is very nearly upon us. It is akin to the moment at a wedding when the doors open, and the congregation stands as the bride starts down the aisle.

This intuition hints at one of the key components of the splendour of Christmastime: its timelessness. This is partly nostalgia — every Christmas is freighted with the remembrance of Christmases past, especially those unbeatable childhood ones, and for many of us intertwined with memories of those who now, as one beautiful prayer has it, “rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light”.   

And yet, beyond nostalgia, there is a genuine sense that we are stepping outside the ordinary flow of human affairs. As Charles Dickens explored so perfectly in A Christmas Carol, at Christmas we see through time. Not perhaps for very long — a few days or a few hours, or even just for fleeting instants. But the ordinary strains and troubles of life fall away just a little. We greet strangers in the street and, in the words of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, “men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow travellers to the grave.”  

Around 20 years ago, I spent part of Christmas in a small village in Gloucestershire. Eastleach is the kind of place where it is easy to imagine yourself in the early 20th century rather than the early 21st. After boisterous carol-singing in the parish church, we repaired to a nearby farmhouse — which itself would not have looked out of place in a Constable landscape — to sing the Gloucestershire Wassail, which dates at least to the 1700s, and probably rather further back. There was something profoundly beautiful about participating in this community ritual that has continued in one form or another for hundreds of years, since before the Reformation.

You get the same atmosphere attending a service of Nine Lessons And Carols, especially in ancient country churches, or the first Mass of Christmas. A popular faux-sophisticated take on Yuletide tradition is that it was all invented by the Victorians, and this is certainly true of a few aspects. All the same, many of our festive rituals far predate Prince Albert’s alleged innovations. This is especially true of Christian liturgies, including carols — The Coventry Carol was composed in the reign of Henry VIII, while O Come All Ye Faithful is at least 300 years old — and the more raucous customs, like feasting and drinking and the temporary upending of social order once embodied in the Lord Of Misrule. Undoubtedly there have been fashions in the keeping of Christmas, as opinions and social norms change, and yet there remains a deep core to the thing. 

The familiar rhythms give us a glimpse of the truth that all this has been going on for a long time, and will carry on in much the same way long after we’re gone. There is perhaps sadness in that realisation, but it is also a tiding of comfort and joy. 


Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.

niall_gooch

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

15 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Hop
J Hop
4 months ago

Merry Christmas UK! Love, America.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
4 months ago
Reply to  J Hop

And a Merry Christmas to you too, America!

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
4 months ago

A popular faux-sophisticated take on Yuletide tradition is that it was all invented by the Victorians, and this is certainly true of a few aspects.
Clever people, those Victorians. It’s striking the level of vitriol our modern era has for them. That may reflect an unconscious recognition that, in many ways, the Victorian era represents the apex of our civilization, and that it’s been downhill since.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
4 months ago

I quite agree. I live in a Victorian tenement building (or ‘close’ as we say in Scotland) and it is the absolute pinnacle of urban dwelling. So, despite their funny habits such as being a bit ‘racist’ and sending children up chimneys, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They created the modern world and subsequent generations have hosed it all up the wall.

Matt M
Matt M
3 months ago

“So, despite their funny habits such as being a bit ‘racist’ and sending children up chimneys”

Of course they abolished global slavery in 1833 and banned people under 21 from climbing chimneys in 1840.

Last edited 3 months ago by Matt M
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

But sadly stopped Public Executions in 1868.

T Bone
T Bone
3 months ago

How could it be apex when mean life expectancy is 41 years?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Strip out infant mortality and the figures are much better!

Matt M
Matt M
3 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The Victorians would have all known psalm 90:

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years”

Average life expectancy was 70 in 19 century Britain and 80 year olds were common. Of course infant mortality was very high and 1/4 of people didn’t make their fifth birthday. But if you survived to five you would be likely to live as long as someone in modern day India. 150 years later modern Brits can expect an extra 10 years of life and 99.9% of kids make five (due in large part to late Victorian innovations in midwifery and vaccination.

Barry Dank
Barry Dank
3 months ago

Gooch observation re Christmas-“And yet, beyond nostalgia, there is a genuine sense that we are stepping outside the ordinary flow of human affairs.” Maybe such is the case in the UK, but not the case in America. Ordinary flow of human affairs continues in the context of watching NFL football, almost a required Christmas Day ritual. To get out of the ordinary flow on Christmas Day, cancel all sporting events, have all TVs turned off, engage in long periods of silences interrupted by beautiful chanting and singing. But this will not occur in America, we have been thoroughly secularized.

T Bone
T Bone
3 months ago
Reply to  Barry Dank

Highly underrated post!

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
4 months ago

Personally, an important post as it’s helped me bridge or mediate Christian pundits who claim and insist on the acceptance of the physical resurrection of Christ as the cornerstone of Christianity with a more mystical (for want of a better word) sense of religion and, particularly, Christianity. Thank you.

T Bone
T Bone
3 months ago
Reply to  Hendrik Mentz

Elaborate please.

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
3 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Oops! This was meant for ‘The mysterious power of Christmas’. One of the hazards of living off grid and needing to rely on the small screen. Thank you T Bone for noticing.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
3 months ago

Thank you for this. Christmas is by far my favourite time of year. As the author notes it is all about continuity – from your childhood to your current life – and then back to your children and on again. It is the one thing that is done the same way literally every year of your life. I have photo albums from my parents with Christmas scenes involving friends and relatives long past gone. There is also continuity for Christians who have immigrated elsewhere now or in previous generations back to their homelands as the Christmas traditions travelled with them.