Santa’s already come to town

Given modern British culture, it’s too late to wish readers ‘Happy Christmas’ in December.

It’s not just that retailers start promoting Christmas in August but that celebrating Christmas starts earlier.In early October a letter in The Daily Torygraph observed that a store in the writer’s town was selling sandwiches – presumably designed for early consumption – labelled ‘Merry Christmas.’

Celebrating Christmas earlier each year is becoming so common that Christmas Carol services and Fetes will soon be preceding Halloween.

Looking backwards rather than forwards, it’s worth remembering that many modern Christmas celebration traditions aren’t all that traditional, measured against the centuries of Britain’s Christian history.

When Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ was published in 1843 Christmas cards, crackers and Father Christmas hadn’t arrived.

Two of the most familiar images of celebration were not home grown.Christmas Trees and Father Christmas were imports from Germany although Santa’s pillar box red costume was USA-devised.

With attention this year devoted to the centenary of the ending of the First World War it’s also been fitting that the unofficial 1914 Truce is also recalled.The spirit of Christmas had Tommies and Germans laying down their arms, exchanging gifts and songs, the means by which ‘Silent Night’ became part of British hymnology. An occasion when other ranks showed greater sense than the top ranks, military or political.

Celebrating Christmas earlier each year is becoming so common that Christmas Carol services and Fetes will soon be preceding Halloween

A pity that the import of ‘Silent Night’ hasn’t been accompanied by British churches also celebrating St Nicholas (Santa Claus)Day in common with our nearby European neighbours.

As well as looking back it would be good, until Christmas celebrations return to their right place in the calendar, to recall Christmas customs that have disappeared.

Better thought about than achievable, because until the Victorian invention of most modern Christmas celebrations Christmas was not a focus of especial note being but one of a series of wintertime events from Halloween via Christmas and early January’s Plough Monday to Twelfth Night.

When churchgoing was the norm the significant events of the Christian calendar were well known and so additional celebrations could seem irrelevant. At Christmastide the well-off held dinner parties and many of the poor took part in ‘Waits’ when bands of musicians would play in the streets. Waits was accompanied by so much drinking that the events were banned in the late 19th century.

Drink was also the key feature of Wassailing, a rite to pray for a good crop of cider apples. A custom that happily still survives.

A Christmastide activity that would delight modern Gay Priders and many episcopal and Synod opinion moulders was Topsy Turvey, when men and women dressed as each other.

Semper eadem.

Alan Edwards