When getting ready for Christmas, decorations collected over the years come down from the attic to transform our house into a yuletide shrine. Ancient carol singers share the mantelpiece with a new holly wreath. The dining table becomes a winter wonderland, covered with Santas of different nationality, size and shape. Mixed in with the red-hatted creatures go sheep, reindeer, and miniature pine trees. One year my son decided to place our small crib at the center of this tableaux, with a particularly fine Santa, all red velvet and white beard, placed strategically beside Baby Jesus’ cot. I found it hard to explain exactly why they had to be separated.
The month of December has always had special significance for those of us who live through long, dark winters. Still the most important festival of the northern year, Christmas has layers of subtexts and meanings, and we surround ourselves with artefacts and traditions which constantly mix fables and fact, ancient rituals and modern myth.
Stephen Nissenbaum, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, knows more about these myths than most. He has written a fascinating book, about how modern Christmas came about. In his telling, tradition is just the dream of the present.
“What my study does is focus on how the festival has been reinvented. Some of the things people lament, the presumed ills of modern Christmas like over-indulgence of food and drink, are actually its truest traditions. A Christmas centered around children, and the family, is a new development ”.
Boundaries were tested and social hierarchy inverted as the poor made demands on the rich. Wren boys, wassailing, carolling are all very old traditions that included plenty of drink, sexual escapades, and some fairly aggressive begging – it was not just a case of the rich giving alms to the poor, but the poor demanding gifts.
For thousands of years, revelry and excess was the popular form of celebration, opposed first by the Church and later the emerging middle classes.
“The history of Christmas is also a history of religious and class conflict. Powerful interests have always tried to co-opt real human needs, and the battle to control this festival is an example of that. The Church tried to christianise it, the Victorians wanted to make it respectable, and then a group of New Yorkers invented the domestic idyll and Santa Claus. And from the latter grew modern consumer society”.
Nissenbaum’s book is aptly named The Battle for Christmas , and the first of many battles is where the Church tries, but, according to Nissenbaum, fails, to take over Christmas.
In the early days of the Church, an important principle in Christian missionary work was to maintain traditional customs and beliefs, but give them new meaning. Hence holy days were set at the time of pagan festivals. December was a time for important celebrations of the seasons, linked both to Winter solstice and the end of the harvest. Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a week-long feast in honour of the God of agriculture and harvest, Saturn. This was party-time, with plenty of food and drink being available to all. Even slaves were given time off. In an inversion of social hierarchy, masters were expected to share their wealth with, and even wait on, their servants. The generosity expected at Saturnalia also extended to the giving of gifts to children, all of which it was believed would bring a bounty in return from the Gods in the new year.
The extended darkness made the return of the sun a central event in the Northern European year, and not just because of sun worship. Nissenbaum stresses how the season was a special time in the agricultural calendar as well.
“In modern times, we take it for granted that food is available throughout the year, but this has only been true for the last two centuries. In the days before refrigeration, December was the only time when Europeans ate fresh meat, and it was also the time when beer and wine from the harvest were available in greatest abundance. The dark days were moreover the only leisure time of the year – when no productive work could be done on the farm. A form of early carnival developed – the time of plenty was celebrated by letting go. The result of excess and over-consumption of food and drink was that inhibitions would get dispelled, and allow for a kind of behaviour that was at the very margins of what people could get away with. For a short time, a system of controlled chaos ruled. Boundaries were tested and social hierarchy inverted as the poor made demands on the rich. Wren boys, wassailing, carolling are all very old traditions that included plenty of drink, sexual escapades, and some fairly aggressive begging – it was not just a case of the rich giving alms to the poor, but the poor demanding gifts. In return, the poor offered something of true value in a paternalistic society: their goodwill. Traditionally, it does not seem to have constituted a challenge to the authorities, but was tolerated by the elite, perhaps as a kind of safety valve that contained class resentments.”