Christmas is an old and a young holiday – Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ of over 2,000 years ago, and yet the occasion as we know it today is little more than 100 years old.
For centuries, Christmas itself was only a minor event, with Easter being the main Christian holiday – although the date of December 25 was celebrated for the pagan festival of Yule. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon “Cristesmæsse,” a term first recorded in 1038. While the Catholic Church rebranded Yule as Christmas, it did not resemble current day celebrations, full of feasting and gift-exchanging – it was a somber time of fasting and pious religiosity. According to the 8th-century cleric Ecgbert of York:
“[T]he English people have been accustomed to practise fasts, vigils, prayers, and the giving of alms both to monasteries and to the common people, for the full twelve days before Christmas.”
As historian Dr. Tim Flight notes, we can see the precursors to Christmas gifts, festive charity, and churchgoing. Over the centuries, peasants were granted 12 days off to celebrate Christmas and New Year, culminating in the Twelfth Night, but the occasion still lacked fanfare. The Elizabethan times rolled around, and yet Shakespeare is noted for his lack of attention to Christmas – even in his Twelfth Night play. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, he makes mention of new years’ gifts, writing:
“Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher’s offal, and to be thrown in the Thames? Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a new-year’s gift.”
While in The Taming of the Shrew, two characters exchange:
“Sly: Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a comonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
“Page: No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff.”
As we can see, the Bard didn’t think much of Christmas. That’s not to say, however, that he saw no magic in the commemoration of Christ’s birth. This stanza from Hamlet provides a more reverent tone in keeping with the former solemnity of the event:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
It was not until the Victorian era that modern-day Christmas came into being. With the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, the German tradition of the Christmas tree became popular, and this is also the era that saw the invention of the Christmas cracker, Christmas cards, and the now-familiar imagery of families sitting around tables and enjoying holiday meals together. The rise of mass production made tree decorations and gifts affordable for all classes in society, and printing developments had the same effect for cards. One early Christmas card held at the Victoria and Albert Museum showed the message:
Wait on all
Whose hearts are turned to greet him,
For decked with smiles he comes to those
Who care with smiles to meet him,
A MERRY CHRISTMAS then to thee;
And all thou lov’st where e’er they be.
Of course, that name synonymous with Victorian Britain – that of Charles Dickens – was instrumental in not only modern perceptions of that era, but also modern Christmas. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is not only a classic piece of literature that is still popular today, it also became a guide of sorts for all the Christmases that would follow. It would be impractical to duplicate the novel here, so let us instead look at a poem of the same name, on a similar theme, printed in the London Society Christmas edition of 1868.
A Christmas Carol
By Astley H. Baldwin
In the dale-church, o’er the fells.
Be our ways of life so varied,
Be our fortunes poor or bright,
Hand in hand with all our brothers,
We are one at least tonight.
Nor the noble in his mansion,
Nor the sovereign on her throne,
Nor the beggar in his hovel,
Will enjoy themselves alone.
We all seek the kindly greeting
Of some dear, familiar face;
We all know that hermit feeling
For to-night is out of place.
But one night! Why not for ever
Should we bind the golden chain
That shows man his poorest fellow
Was not sent to earth in vain?
That each sorrow hath a purpose,
That each gift hath an alloy,
That ever finely balanced
Are the scales of grief and joy.
Spare a little, then, ye rich ones,
From your laden coffers now;
Bring to poverty a sun-ray,
Bring a smile to sorrow’s brow.
Take it gratefully, ye toilers,
Toilers up earth’s weary hill;
‘Tis a green spot in your desert,
‘Tis a good sprung from your ill.
Yes! Be rich and poor united,
‘Tis most grand in Heaven’s sight,
And a blessing, not earth’s blessing,
Is on all the world to-night!
The Victorian era loved mysticism (the ghosts of A Christmas Carol being one relevant example), but the subsequent Edwardian years came to a rude end with the devastation of World War I. One of Thomas Hardy’s most popular poems, “The Oxen,” was published in The Times on Christmas Eve, 1915. The verse shows us the shift from a world of religion and mysticism to one of modern skepticism – yet with a lingering hope that “magic” or “miracles” can still come true, after all.
As literary critic Dr. Oliver Tearle wrote, “The poem highlights the yearn to believe, even – or perhaps especially – when we know that we cannot bring ourselves to entertain such beliefs … The war stripped away many illusions, and people who might have been clinging to a residual belief in old customs and traditions often found themselves becoming disillusioned very quickly.”
By Thomas Hardy
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,
‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Will those 20th-century perspectives continue into the 21st century, as gradually people abandon the spiritual for the material – or will a residual longing for something deeper win out? The holiday has changed so much in such a short period, who’s to say what Christmas – or, perhaps, “x-mas” – will look like in another century’s time?
Read more from Laura Valkovic.