By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Has something gone wrong with Christmas? Every year we hear (or maybe half-hear) media or pulpit moans about commercialising Christmastide, while we settle down next to Gran to watch a Christmas Special with an eye on the Pepto-Bismol.
The lesson of history is that people have been moaning thus since the festival began. Don’t fret about losing “the real meaning”. Right back to the Middle Ages, the real meaning was partly eating too much, drinking too much, spending too much.
That’s what celebration is like, and most religions, most human beings, enjoy celebrating. Jesus Christ appreciated celebration; he was trolled for hanging around with winebibbers and sinners.
True, some sorts of Christians have got this wrong. After the 16th-century Reformation, some Protestants – killjoy Protestants, not all of them – said Christmas wasn’t a Christian festival; they couldn’t find it in the Bible (how do you work that out?).
One of the biggest PR disasters in English history was mega-Puritan Oliver Cromwell’s effort to abolish Christmas. He ordered shopkeepers to stay open on Christmas Day, just to spite Yuletide in the name of godliness. Back then, it meant that you could put up two fingers to Oliver Cromwell and support Christmas on 25 December just by turning over and going back to sleep.
Once Cromwell was dead and gone, the Church of England returned with Charles II (a Merry Monarch, remember), and signalled the Puritans’ defeat by publishing the first Protestant English carol, to my mind one of the best: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.
Maybe you’ve heard it too much, but it’s brilliantly written. Have a sing-through and notice how artfully simple it is: all words one or two syllables, and a story that slides over the line-endings so it doesn’t get clunky – “Thus spake the Seraph, and forthwith Appeared a Shining Throng of Angels…” Superb stuff.
No offence, then, in celebrating at Christmas. But the trouble with our modern Christmases is they’re the wrong way round. I’d love to turn Christmas on its head and start on the eve of the festival, 24 December; that really would be celebrating in the traditional way.
Odds are that at some stage in the next few weeks you’re going to hear that fine old nonsense song The 12 Days of Christmas, and if you sing it, award yourself extra points for remembering beyond “five gold rings”.
But when you launch into checking off all those gifts day by day, which day do you start from? You are actually remembering the time when Christmas was the other way round.
Christmas now starts with Christmas telly adverts some time in the autumn. But the first day of Christmas, with its Partridge in a Pear Tree, is Christmas Day; that’s what our medieval ancestors understood. The 12 days go through to 5 January, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Wise Men saw the baby Jesus, the moment he was shown to the whole world.
That’s still how they do it in southern Europe; the 12 days are all celebration, with New Year in the middle, and 6 January is the biggest.
Nowadays we start winding down on Boxing Day, and the country seems to go to bed till early January, except when we’re off to the January sales. Our ancestors had their quiet time before Christmas, spending the season of Advent getting ready for the big celebration (so at least Advent calendars get the right idea).
Now we put the quiet time in the week and more afterwards, recovering from all embarrassments committed at office parties, too many carols over too many weeks. I propose a new start. Take it easy in Advent. Ignore the twinkly lights and shopping mall muzak. Carols are for Christmas, not Advent. Flip your feast.