Anxiety about Christmas being “cancelled” has been a staple in tabloid newspapers for decades — but according to writer and historian Tom Holland, it’s been around a lot longer than that.
“Anxiety about that is in itself a very Christian tradition,” he told me in our LockdownTV Christmas Special (complete with crackling fire and stockings). “By the time you get to the Reformation in England, the Puritans in particular are very anxious about the way in which they see the Roman Church as having failed to root up the brambles and nettles of Paganism… The Puritans are the first people to draw up this thesis that Christmas celebrations derive from the pagan.”
The stereotype of Cromwell cancelling Christmas is not quite fair, says Tom, but the echoes were profound.
“One of the fascinations of this strangest of Christmases is that actually it does bring you quite close to what the Puritans were worried about. Just as people now who want to really rein in Christmas are doing it for the best of reasons, because it they think that it will save lives and be for the good of society as a whole, that was exactly the motivation of the Puritans… They were anxious that celebrating Christmas in a pagan way would doom those who did it to eternal death. It’s about health in both cases, a desire to not needlessly see people lost to death.”
But despite the Christian impulses behind many of the pandemic restrictions, the absence of the Church in playing a leading role in this pandemic has been new, and striking. Not only did they close their doors for the first time since the Interdict in the 13th century, church leaders have been remarkably absent from the discourse.
“The risk for the churches is that they come to seem like an eccentric and not very important sub department of the welfare state. The role played by bishops, the messages that they were giving, were basically public health messages — but if the church is going to play a distinctive role, that is inadequate… The point of them must be to talk about the idea that there is a purpose to this, that there is a dimension that lies beyond the merely physical — all the stuff that traditionally churches have talked about but which they now seem slightly embarrassed about.”
We covered his own faith, reflections on this particular Christmas, and the ongoing presence of the Christian influence in so much of this year’s events.
Thanks to Tom for a great discussion.