As a result, I’ve been thinking about traditions, and how they develop.
We all have our special tradition that marks the start of the season. Perhaps it’s when Dad brings the fairy lights down from the loft. Or, perhaps, when Nana stirs up Christmas puddings. Maybe it’s the smell of Christmas trees, or hearing a particular song. Whatever it is, it’s the thing that makes it Christmas.
Year on year, generation on generation, these traditions accumulate to form an unbroken chain that links us to our ancestors way back in deep time.
Long, long ago, in the mysterious time before records began, we can imagine how someone noticed, one dark day, that the sun had ceased to decline. For twelve days, sunset hovered at the same place and time. Then, it began to set a little later, to rise a little higher in the sky at noon. Rejoice! The long darkness will end: the sun is returning.
As years passed, this change – the Solstice – became predictable. People gathered together to mark it. As always with a crowd, there was cooking, eating, music and story-telling. Stories of death and rebirth abounded, metaphors for the death of the old year and hopes for the new one to come.
Someone noticed that a few evergreen plants appeared magically alive amongst the skeletal branches of the primal forest. They gathered these evergreens to decorate the feast. While they waited for the food to cook they remembered feats of the past and the ghosts of their ancestors. Someone made toys for the children – and the myth of the Christmas gift-giver was born..
And so began the festival we now name Christmas. It’s different, but the same, layers and layers of ritual and memory built from the celebration of the winter solstice.
The Romans – who knew how to party – called it Saturnalia. They gave gifts, drank heavily, and entertained themselves with nonsense role reversals. Men dressed as women, slaves as masters, who – if they dared – gave joke orders while normal life was suspended.
With Christianity came a new story, the birth of Baby Jesus. Christ was big in Mediaeval Christmases. People gathered in church to keep vigil for His arrival, heralded by angels. He brought with him his Mother Mary and a host of admirers including an ox, ass, donkey, shepherds, lambs, and Wise Men – perfect for the ensemble cast nativity play.
It’s a show still loved today, as in schools across the country, anxious little boys adjust the tea towels on their heads that transform them into shepherds. The shy one clings to a toy lamb. Wise men in gold paper crowns offer glittering gifts. The little girl acting Mother Mary cradles the doll baby Jesus – and there is not a mother in the place without a tear in her eye.
In Mediaeval times, after Church, people feasted in their Lord’s Hall. Mediaeval halls were perfect for great feasts, with a huge central hearth for the Yule log, and trestle tables down each side.
The feast item of choice was wild boar. Boar brought people together. It had to, because it was impossible to have it without large numbers of people. Roaming wild in the forest, difficult and dangerous to catch, it took a team of brave hunters to bring in the Christmas boar. It took many hours to roast – but fed many people. It was carried into my Lord’s hall with ceremony and song.
When the eating was over, the trestle tables could be pushed aside for music, dancing, play acting, sports, or whatever else. And when the revels were over, people simply wrapped themselves in their cloak, lay on the straw floor covering, and slept there. There were no worries about guest rooms or sofa beds in those days.
As the Medieval system crumbled after the Reformation, the fabric of society changed. It changed so much that Christmas was threatened.
In the seventeenth century, Reformed religious leaders preached that Christmas was wasteful and frivolous. In 1644, their views prevailed, and Christmas celebrations became illegal. Soldiers patrolled the streets, seizing any food they suspected of being destined for Christmas parties.
Serious- minded Puritans approved of the new, festivity-free Christmas. But those who missed the celebrations rioted, and in 1660, both the monarchy and Christmas were restored.
But for sixteen dark, dreary winters, Christmas was illegal. CS Lewis’s dark fantasy came true: winter, with no Christmas. A generation of children grew up deprived of Christmas rituals.
But Christmas didn’t die easily. Deep in the countryside, far from law enforcers, Christmas survived. The glory days of the feast in the Lord’s hall were gone. But in cottages and farmhouses, a goose might be roasted, sprigs of greenery find their way onto the mantel shelf, a little spice spill into the pudding. People spoke of ‘keeping Christmas’, as of something to treasure, something delicate, to bring out each year and polish.
In the Victorian era, many people moved from the countryside to towns – where Christmas wasn’t a big event. But the writer Charles Dickens was a Christmas enthusiast, and he campaigned tirelessly for Christmas. HIs most famous work, A Christmas Carol, has become a seasonal classic, made and remade for screen adaptations in every generation.
In these modern times, we are overwhelmed by shops, businesses and venues, all competing for our attention – and money – at Christmas time. Their mascot is the Big Man, who brings gifts. The bearded giver of gifts has gone under many names, including Woden, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Santa Klaus, and plain Santa. Whatever his name, he is sure of a welcome.
But I would say, the thing people remember, and treasure most, at Christmas, is not what they were given, nor even what they ate, but who they were with.
Spend Christmas with those you love – and if that’s not possible, then spare them a thought. However far away they may be, they are in your heart.
And you are in theirs.