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Merry Christmas

J.A.R. Pimlott studies the development of the Christmas Spirit—from Pagan Saturnalia to Victorian family party

19th-century mummers. From a MS. in the Bodleian Library“One of the least pleasing effects of modern refinement,” wrote Washington Irving in the Sketch Book (1819-20), “is the havoc it has made among the hearty old holiday customs ... Many of the games and ceremonials of Christmas have entirely disappeared, and like the sherris sack of old Falstaff, are become matters of speculation and dispute among commentators.” Irving himself painted a memorable picture of what G. K. Chesterton called the “feudal Christmas”—Christmas as it had been kept by Sir Roger de Coverley and was romanticized by Sir Walter Scott.

England was merry England when

Old Christmas brought his sports again.

He was one of several nineteenth-century writers—among them William Sandys and other antiquaries—who recorded the traditional observances in an attempt to save them from the oblivion that seemed imminent. In fact, Christmas was on the eve of a rejuvenation, as a result of which it was to gain a popularity hardly paralleled in its long history.

The English Christmas was largely reshaped in the nineteenth century, but to understand what happened it is necessary to look back to the “old” Christmas out of which it developed. Those who like to pursue institutions to their ultimate sources may, if they wish, trace the origins of the English Christmas to the beginnings of human society. For the present, it is enough that the festivities derived less from Christian sources than from the pagan midwinter celebrations at the time of the December solstice, which had the promotion of fertility as one of their chief purposes. The eating and drinking, always an important feature of Christmas observances, are directly descended from these primaeval banquetings; and other customs that with greater or lesser certainty can be traced to pre-Christian origins include the use of evergreens, the telling of ghost stories, and some of the traditional games.

Little is known about the midwinter observances in Britain upon which Augustine and his successors sought to superimpose the Christian feast of the Nativity. There is a tantalizing reference to the heathen “Yule” in Bede, but for the most part it is necessary to rely on surmise. The story of the English Christmas from the Conversion to the Conquest, however, is epitomized in the instructions which Gregory the Great sent to Augustine. He was to be careful not to alarm the people by interference with heathen ceremonies, and the Pope specifically advised him to allow converts to kill and eat large numbers of oxen to the glory of God at the Christmas festival, as they had formerly done to the Devil.

Until it had consolidated its position, the Church was obliged to acquiesce in the continuance of many pagan observances; but, as time went on, it was able to effect a synthesis between the old and the new in which the grosser customs had no place. Alfred and other Kings joined with the ecclesiastical authorities in prescribing that the Twelve Days should be kept as a period of festival and abstention from work. Even though the people still performed their traditional dances in the precincts of the church at Christmas, at least they came to church to do so. And a Christian background was provided for the feasting, the telling of tales, the nunstrelsy, the games, the wassailing, and the jousting, with which the Twelve Days were marked.

The first chapter in the story may conveniently be closed in 1043, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the first time spoke of December 25th as “Christmas” instead of “midwinter” or “midwinter’s mass.” By the eleventh century the main elements in the Christmas tradition, which the Normans inherited, had been established. The Twelve Days were the chief period of annual holiday— a sensible recognition of economic realities in a rural society, as well as a compromise with popular tradition. Survivals from paganism had been so successfully blended with Christian observances that even the Church had come to accept the admixture. What principally distinguished this complex of customs from those of today was their communal character; they involved the participation of the whole community, and were focused on some central point, whether it was the church or the hall of the local lord or magnate.

The Norman Conquest led to no fundamental change in this pattern. One of its consequences, however, was to expose England to Continental Christmas traditions that went back to the Saturnalian and other celebrations of imperial Rome. Though the Continental “Feast of Fools” was never fully transplanted here, among the customs that it contributed to the English Christmas were the “Boy Bishop” ceremonies and the “lords of misrule,” who in the later Middle Ages were common under various names at the Court, in noble houses, and at colleges and inns of court.

Saturnalian customs never took deep root in England, and the major innovations between the Conquest and the Reformation were largely native in character. The Nativity drama, evolved as a medium of religious instruction, became one of the chief forms of popular art and the forerunner of the secular theatre. But it was the carol that was the main literary glory of the mediaeval English Christmas. Imported in the first place from France and Italy, on English soil it was transformed from a dance song into the medium for some of the loveliest expressions of the English lyrical genius.

The immediate impact of the Reformation upon Christmas observances was so slight as to be hard to discern. The “boy bishops” soon died out, despite an attempt by Queen Mary to revive them after they had been suppressed by Cranmer; for the ecclesiastical authorities had long regarded them with disfavour. Carols and carol-singing also went into a decline, though this was due rather to the development of instrumental music than to religious reasons. On the surface, things continued much as before, but the changes that were taking place underneath were so fundamental that, when the crisis came under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, it was all the more explosive for having been delayed.

It was not only that, with the spread of Puritanism, the traditional celebrations became offensive to a growing body of opinion. Many who had no inclinations to Puritanism deplored, the excesses which marked them—the disorders, at the Inns of Court and the Universities, the drunkenness and gambling among all classes. There was nothing new in this. Wyclif had denounced the abuses as vehemently as did the Puritans, and both the Church and the secular authorities had tried to curb them. Deeper forces were at work, for the old Christmas reflected a social and economic system that was rapidly being transformed. The agricultural revolution, the expansion of trade and industry, the growth of the towns, the liquidation of the monastic estates, the increasing differentiation between social classes, all contributed imperceptibly but surely to the disintegration of the “feudal” Christmas of the manor, the gild, and the mediaeval corporation. Contemporaries were dimly aware of what was happening. The author of the late sixteenth-or early seventeenth-century verses, The Lamentation of Christmas, deplored the decline of the rural Christmas, attributing it to economic and social causes, which included the exodus of “great men” to London, rural depopulation as a result of sheep-farming, the impoverishment of the farmers, and the high cost of living.

But the extent of the changes that then occurred must not be exaggerated. Herrick’s vivid and delightful descriptions of the countryman’s Christmas are evidence of the vitality of the old customs, even when the Puritan attack was at its height. As for the towns, the old Christmas is nowhere more faithfully summed up than in Ben Jonson’s Christmas Masque (1616), in which the eight sons and two daughters of the central figure, old Gregory Christmas, epitomize the main institutions of the season: “Mis-Rule, Caroll, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post and Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering, Babie-Cake.” Hezekiah Woodward succinctly stated the chief items of the Puritan indictment in the title of the tract he published in 1656:

“Christmas Day, the old Heathens' Feasting Day in honour to Saturn their Idol-God, the Papists' Massing Day, the Superstitious Man's Idol Day, the Multitudes' Idle Day, Satan's That Adversary's Working Day, the true Christian Man’s Pasting Day.”

There were popular uprisings against the Puritan ban, but, as John Evelyn, among others, discovered, the authorities did not hesitate to use the army to enforce it. That the Puritans merely accelerated an historical process is shown by the failure of Christmas to regain its former popularity after the Restoration. But again one must not overemphasize. As Addison, Southey, Cowper and other writers bear witness, the traditional celebrations never entirely died out in rural England. Gay, Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, are among those who provide evidence of the survival of the old forms in the towns; and the brisk business in Norfolk turkeys, which developed in the eighteenth century, indicates the importance attached by the Londoner to a good Christmas table.

Christmas was, nevertheless, by general consent in decline. The author of Poor Robin’s Almanack was perhaps indulging in poetic licence when he declared in 1709:

And Christmas scarcely should we know

Did not the almanacks it show.

But David Garrick summed up the general view in A Christmas Tale (1774) '

Behold a personage well known to fame;

Once lov’d and honour’d—Christmas is my name!

And Lamb was probably right in 1827; Old Christmas, he said, “cometh not with his wonted gait, he is shrunk 9 inches in the girth, but is yet a lusty fellow.”

It is not easy to say why the process of decay should have been suddenly arrested in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Christmas of Pickwick Papers, published in 1836-7, seems to be separated by an age from the Christmas of the Christmas Carol, published in 1843. Pickwick stressed the material side of the festivities, and looked back to the eighteenth century. The Carol looked forward, and was largely responsible for the fact that Dickens, more than any other person, is associated with the modern conception of Christmas. Without neglecting the good things of the season the Carol dwelt upon the spiritual, though not specifically the religious, aspects of the festivity. As the immediate success of the Carol on both sides of the Atlantic showed, Dickens’s role was to translate into literary form the feelings that many inarticulate people were beginning to share. The part of the Prince Consort, who is often linked with Dickens as the founder of the modern Christmas, was even more passive. Neither was an innovator; the one accelerated the course of events by his writings, and the other by his royal example.

Dickens’s Carol was a protest against the hypocrisy that had made a mockery of conventional Christmas sentiments. Ebenezer Scrooge, at least, had the courage of his convictions; which was more than could be said of most of his fellow countrymen. The theme was not original; it was already part of the Christmas stock-in-trade of humanitarian and radical writers. Punch, for example, preached it year after year. “Christmas is fast approaching,” Punch wrote in 1841, “Let the physical weight of all corporations, all private benefactors of the poor, be distributed in eatables to the indigent and famishing.” This new conception of Christmas answered the psychological needs that were expressed and stimulated by the social novelists and the Christian Socialist movement. That it should have become the festival, above all, of the child was also natural in the circumstances of the age. The innocence and helplessness of children appealed to the romantic, and offered a challenge to the humanitarian; it was a time when family life was being strengthened by the revival of religion, and in this the Court set an example followed by all ranks in society.

The resurgence of Christmas did not prevent the continued decline of folk customs that had lost their meaning or were ill-adapted to modern conditions. A radical reshaping took place; Twelfth Night, mumming, wassailing, were some of the customs that were discarded. Many industrial workers, including children, had no other holiday than December 25th; and the giving of presents was transferred from New Year to Christmas Day. With the disappearance of Twelfth Night celebrations, the Twelfth cake—still in the middle of the century the “monarch of sweetmeats,” according to a writer in Punch—seems to have been transmuted into the Christmas cake. There were some revivals, the carol being the most important. It had never died out, but most of the mediaeval carols had been forgotten, and carol-singing had declined into little more than a rural folk survival. Already before Dickens, antiquarians had begun the work of rediscovery which was to culminate in the reinstatement of the carol as one of the major features of the English Christmas. The Nativity play and the crib came later, and never counted for so much. The pantomime—perhaps the only contribution of the eighteenth century and not, in the first place, specifically connected with Christmas—gained in extravagance and splendour. The giving of presents became universal; they are conspicuously absent from the celebrations in Pickwick.

But the chief interest lies in the new customs that were introduced. There were at least three major innovations: in chronological order, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, and—strange though this may sound— Father Christmas as we know him now. The Prince Consort has been mistakenly credited with responsibility for bringing the Christmas tree to England. No doubt the example of the royal household was an important influence in spreading the custom; but it was already known here before the Prince introduced it at Windsor in 1840; and the speed with which it was simultaneously adopted in the United States and elsewhere outside Germany is evidence that the extraordinary popularity attained in the forties and fifties by this “pretty German toy,” as Dickens called it, was due to deeper causes. In Germany itself the custom went back at least to the early seventeenth century; it is recorded at Strasbourg in 1605. But it remained localized in Germany, and largely unknown outside, until the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

The Christmas card, on the other hand, was a British invention. There was nothing novel, of course, about the exchange of seasonable greetings; it was an old custom. But in the age of the penny post the Christmas card was the obvious practical answer to the problem that became more complicated as Christmas was taken more seriously—how to communicate easily with friends and relatives who could not be greeted in person. The odd thing is that, although it was separately invented in the forties by Sir Henry Cole and others, and had been anticipated by valentines, Twelfth Night “characters,” and the “Christmas pieces” of the eighteenth-century schoolboy, the Christmas card did not take hold until the late sixties. This delay is the harder to explain since it then acquired an astonishing vogue, which for the next generation almost amounted to a cult. During the seventies and eighties Christmas cards provided examples of some of the best, as well as the worst, in Victorian art. Famous artists were employed by the publishers, and big prizes offered for designs. Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott, and Walter Crane were among the designers who set a standard which, at its best, has never been attained since.

Lastly, there is the strange story of Father Christmas. The details are vague, but the central facts are clear. Some time in the third quarter of the century the traditional English Father Christmas began to be transformed into an anglicized version of the Dutch-American Santa Claus. The English Father Christmas was a shadowy personification of the season— like Ben Jonson’s Gregory Christmas and the Father Christmas of the mummers’ play. As John Bampfylde wrote:

With footstep slow, in furry pall clad,

His brows enwreathed with holly never sere,

Old Christinas comes, to close the waned year.

He survived into the nineteenth century as a grey-bearded symbol that was still being used in Punch as late as the eighties. He had nothing specifically to do with children, and was not associated with the filling of stockings or the bringing of gifts. These were the attributes of Santa Claus, who had evolved in New York State from the Saint Nicholas of the Dutch colonists, and sprang vividly to life in Clement Clarke Moore’s jeu d’esprit A Visit from Saint Nicholas, perhaps better known as The Night Before Christmas. Moore, who was a professor in an Episcopalian theological college, wrote these verses for his family: and they were published in 1823 without the approval of their author, who was afraid that they might prejudice his reputation as a serious poet. Like the Christmas Carol they happened to be perfectly timed. They struck the popular imagination, and, by clothing the Santa Claus myth in convincing detail, became a major influence in extending its currency throughout the world.

How and when Santa Claus crossed the Atlantic is uncertain; but by the eighties the old Father Christmas was fast giving place to a new personage, sometimes called by the one name and sometimes by the other, but unmistakably the American Santa Claus. In 1883, for example, a French observer, Max O’Rell, told how Father Christmas

“avec sa longue barbe converte de frumas, descend par la cheminee, pour remplir de bonbons et de joux les bas que les enfants ont suspendus au pied du lit”

On the other hand, neither stockings nor chimneys were mentioned in Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Old Father Christmas in 1888. By the next decade, however, the transmutation was complete; and “Father Christmas’’ and “Santa Claus”have since been virtually synonymous.

It took some time for the new forms to develop, and the new Christmas did not fully establish itself until the present century. The past fifty years have been a period of consolidation and standardization. Local variations have been largely eliminated, and the pockets of resistance which flourished throughout the nineteenth century have now been almost wholly wiped out. Even Scotland has yielded; and little remains of the former hostility to Christmas among either the Nonconformists— “Puritans, Muggletonians, Anabaptists, Quakers, and that Unwassailing Crew,” as Charles Lamb said—or the rationalists—those who, like Bernard Shaw, denounced it as an anachronism only kept alive by the shopkeepers, or like the Russells of Amberley, who in the sixties decided to treat Christmas as an ordinary day, until the arrival of a family forced them to compromise their principles. It seems strange now to, find that in 1890 the Spectator was asking “what change has come over us, that the season associated with glamour has become universally distasteful.” Nothing is more remarkable about the contemporary Christmas than the universality of its acceptance. The present pattern seems destined to endure—at least as long as the spiritual values that it enshrines and the social attitudes that it expresses.

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