The midwinter festival has always been a moment to turn things upside down
In a sentiment that will be gloomily familiar to Brits facing strikes and travel chaos, GK Chesterton wrote in the 1930s that the Christmas period was becoming defined by “struggling in tramcars, standing in queues, rushing away in trains, crowding despairingly into tea-shops, and wondering whether they will ever get home.” If only we could simply stay at home and muck about, and play games: “If Christmas could become more domestic, instead of less, I believe there could be a vast increase in the real Christmas spirit; the spirit of the Child.”
The idea that Christmas isn’t what it used to be is a common refrain across modern times. And perhaps with good reason. Tracing the history of the festival across the centuries, there has been a shift away from its original spirit, which was something much less serene and proper and much closer to a carnival.
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The medieval Christmas, long before the Reformation or the Puritans with their solemnising ways. was all about feasting and dancing. Christmas in those days really did last twelve days or longer, and that was twelve days when the shops closed and no one was allowed to work. Instead, you should play games and eat and generally have fun. According to the great medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Christmas at Camelot was basically a party:
For there the feast was alike full fifteen days,
with all the meat and mirth men could devise:
such clamour and glee glorious to hear
dear din in the daylight, dancing of nights;
all was happiness high in halls and chambers
with lords and ladies.
The atmosphere is closer to the festival’s pre-Christian ancestors. Celebrating a midwinter feast by lighting a fire and decorating the inside of the house with evergreens long predates St Augustine. The midwinter Roman feast of Saturnalia, in particular, was defined by legitimised disorder. Each year a Lord of Misrule was appointed and given throne, canopy, armoury, jester and a gibbet for hanging those who displeased him.
Then in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Merry Christmas came under attack. The Reformation had started to dismantle the old ways, and Christmas began to be seen as a hopelessly Pagan relic of an outmoded version of Christianity. It was regarded as Popish and idolatrous by the new breed of Puritans, as personified by the humourless, self-important Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play all about the invasion of the fun-haters.
Scotland got in there first with a ban on Christmas in 1561, on the basis that the Papists invented Christmas. In England, we have reports from the 1630s that some cranks protested against Christmas as a Popish survival by keeping their shops open, but they were seen by most people as eccentric. Then, under Cromwell, the Puritans proclaimed that Christmas was nonsense, and finally banned it altogether. Cromwell’s mob were the original buzzkills — and their descendants are still with us.
Ordinary folk revolted against the Christmas ban. In 1647, there were riotous celebrations by Royalists in Ipswich and Norwich and one reveller was killed. Christmas was celebrated in secret: diarist John Evelyn reports that a Royalist congregation celebrating Christmas was arrested by soldiers. There were illegal Christmas parties, the original illegal raves, and the authorities went round trying to break them up.
After the Restoration and into the 18th century, Christmas limped along as a minor festival, and during the Industrial Revolution it was squeezed even further, when factory owners did their best to turn transform Brits from a nation of hard partyers to hard workers.
It wasn’t really until Charles Dickens that Christmas began to regain its medieval character as a feast for the senses and a time for ruddy-cheeked chuckling. A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and everything changed. The miserable, industrial, puritanical spirit of money-making and hard work was lampooned in the figure of Scrooge, and the medieval spirit was celebrated through the amiable Fezziwiggs. The book had a huge influence on our culture and brought Christmas closer to its origins.
Tom spoke to Florence Read and Freddie Sayers for a Christmas Special on UnHerd TV.