Wednesday, 16 December 2009

‘The Invention of the English Christmas’

From John Storey, ‘The Invention of the English Christmas’ in Sheila Whiteley (ed.) Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), notes on request:

The ‘traditional’ English Christmas was invented between the 1830s and 1880s. Its invention was directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation and only indirectly connected to religion. To claim that the English Christmas was invented in the nineteenth century is to raise the objection that the Nativity was then almost two thousand years old. Although the Nativity may well have been two thousand years old, it and Christmas are not really the same thing.

Constantine the Great, who was Roman Emperor between AD 285 and 337, established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in AD 325. In AD 336 the new Christian Church of Rome established 25 December as the date of the Nativity, the central event in the developing Christian calendar. There is absolutely no scriptural evidence for this date. Moreover, ‘historical’ evidence suggested other dates, including 1 January, 6 January, 21, 28 and 29 March, 9, 19 and 20 April, 20 May, 29 September and 18 November (Harrison 1951: 15; Restad 1995: 4). So why 25 December? The answer is a rival religion called Mithraism. At the centre of this religion is Mithras, the god of light, whose birthday, the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun (Dies Solis Invicti Nati), is 25 December. Mithraism, like Christianity, spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first three centuries AD and competed with Christianity as a potential state religion. As Payam Nabarz explains:

The Roman Mithraic practice was one of the greatest rivals to early Christianity for many reasons. As well as being a popular pagan religion practised by the Roman Army, it had many similarities to Christianity. These similarities frightened the Christian forefathers, as it meant that years before the arrival of Christ, all the Christian mysteries were already known. To combat

this, certain Christian writers said that the Devil, knowing of the coming of Christ in advance, had imitated them before they existed in order to denigrate them. As Christianity gained in strength and became the formal religion of the Roman Empire, the cult of Mithras was one of the first pagan cults to come under attack. (2005: 12–13)

The attack on Mithraism launched by the Christian Church consisted of three strategies. First, Christians should separate themselves from the rival religion. When this strategy did not work, they adopted a second. As Manfred Clauss observes, ‘When such evasions seemed impossible, they effected a take-over, as in the case of the observance of Sunday and the festival of the god’s birth on 25 December’ (2000: 169). An account from the fourth century makes clear the reason for the fixing of the Nativity as 25 December: ‘But when the teachers of the Church realised that Christians were allowing themselves to take part [in the celebrations of the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun], they decided to observe the Feast of the true Birth on the same day’ (quoted in Clauss 2000: 66). Therefore, it seems quite clear that the intention of the Christian Church was to overlay Mithraic rituals and ceremonies with Christian significance. This became a common strategy. In the sixth century Augustine was sent as a missionary to Britain. During the course of his work he received a letter from Pope Gregory advising him to ‘accommodate the ceremonies of the Christian worship as much as possible to those of the heathen, that the people might not be much startled at the change’ (quoted in Harrison 1951: 28). The third strategy was bloody persecution: what Clauss calls ‘the Christians’ fanatical intolerance’ (2000: 170). As Nabarz points out, ‘In the fifth century of the Common Era, temples of Mithras – like most other pagan temples – were destroyed, and in some places churches were built on top of them’ (2005: 13). A letter written around the year 400 provides an example: ‘Did not your kinsman Gracchus . . . destroy a cave of Mithras a few years ago when he was prefect of Rome? Did he not break up and burn all the monstrous images there? . . . Did he not send them before him as hostages, and gain for himself a baptism in Christ?’ (quoted in Clauss 2000: 170).

Although it is clear that 25 December is not the actual date of the Nativity, it is possible to acknowledge this and to claim that it does not matter, as the date was chosen to celebrate the Nativity without any corresponding claim that this is the factual date of Christ’s birth. In other words, we do not know when he was born but we have chosen a date to celebrate his birth. Whatever the argument, the fact remains that the fixing of the Nativity by the Roman state was as much a political act as a theological one.


The circumstances of its origins have made it a problematic festival for some Christians. The Puritans, for example, the ideological engine behind the defeat of the army of Charles I, were literal readers of the Bible. Finding no evidence there for Christmas Day, they argued for its removal from the Christian calendar. Following the conclusion of the English Civil War, which established the Commonwealth or English Republic, Christmas was banned by Act of Parliament on 3 July 1647. On 24 December 1652 Parliament proclaimed, perhaps in the face of some ongoing resistance, that ‘no observance shall be had of the five and twentieth of December, commonly called Christmas day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof ’ (quoted in Hearn 2004: 15). The ban remained in place until 1660. Parliament sat on Christmas Day, churches remained closed and soldiers were instructed to ensure that shops were open. Christmas was decriminalised as a religious holiday with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 but it did not return as popular festival. As Michael Harrison observes:

Christmas came back . . . but he came back wearing something of the sober manner of the men who had temporarily driven him out. Old Christmas, in the twenty years [sic] that he had been officially outlawed, had lost much of his former jauntiness. It was a quieter Christmas who came back. (1951: 146)

By the first decades of the nineteenth century, what is now our major annual festival had almost disappeared. As J. M. Golby and A. W. Purdue point out:
Christmas, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, was neither a major event in the Christian calendar nor a popular festival. Few magazines or newspapers referred to the festal day in any detail and many ignored it completely. In 1790 the leader writer in The Times had asserted that, ‘within the half century this annual time of festivity has lost much of its original mirth and hospitality’ and that newspaper’s attention to the festival over the next half century bears witness to its general decline; in twenty of the years between 1790 and 1835 The Times did not mention Christmas at all, and for the remaining years its reports were extremely brief and uninformative. (2000: 40)

On 26 December 1826 The Times carried the following report: ‘The due observance of Christmas-day was strictly enforced in the City yesterday, the Lord Mayor having given positive orders to the city officers, not to permit any shops to be open for the transaction of business . . . The order was strictly complied with in general.’ The fact that the Lord Mayor of London felt obliged to enforce due observance clearly suggests that


Christmas was not really being observed. Further evidence of its decline is provided by responses to the Factory Act of 1833, which granted workers 8.5 days’ holiday a year, plus Good Friday and Christmas Day. More enlightened factory owners allowed their workers to vote on which days they might have as holidays. Here is an example of the outcome of one such vote in 1833:
[T]hey put it to the vote who were for Good Friday and who were for Easter Monday . . . the same with regard to Christmas-Day; in our part of the country Christmas-Day is not esteemed a workman’s holiday, but New Year’s day is, and the same process has been gone through of informing them that they were entitled to a holiday on Christmas-Day, and they have uniformly expressed a desire to take New Year’s day in lieu of it. (Quoted in Cunningham 1980: 61–2)

The Bolton Chronicle reports a very similar attitude almost twenty years later in 1851:
Not long ago the natal day of the Redeemer was pretty generally disregarded in this town, and a holiday was generally observed on New Year’s Day. Now, though a holiday takes place on Christmas Day, the beginning of the New Year is looked upon as the Christmas season, and the inhabitants betake themselves to their festivities accordingly. (Quoted in Hudson 1997: 115)

In some rural areas it took even longer for the new invention to take hold. As late as 1867, a book on Lancashire folklore observed: ‘In some rural parts of Lancashire it [Christmas Day] is now little regarded, and many of its customs are observed a week later – on the eve and day of the New Year’ (quoted in Golby and Purdue 1981: 16).

Inventing Christmas


Christmas was invented first and foremost as a commercial event. Everything that was revived or invented – decorations, cards, crackers, collections of carols, going to a pantomime, visiting Santa Claus and buying presents – all had one thing in common: they could be sold for profit. Therefore, it does not make historical sense to bemoan the fact that Christmas is too commercial; it was invented as a commercial festival. It was commercial from the very start. Part of what was being celebrated was the achievements of industrial capitalism – conspicuous consumption in a market economy.

Carol singing, for example, has a long history but it is only in the 1830s and 1840s that collections began to be made of old songs and new songs written with a specific focus on Christmas. Significant collections include William Sandys’s Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833) and H. R. Bramley and John Stainer’s Christmas Carols Old and New (1871). In these and other collections, recently composed carols easily outnumber the ancient or the old. Although the Christmas tree had been introduced into England by German migrants in the late eighteenth century, it is generally accepted that it was the London Illustrated News’s depiction of Queen Victoria’s tree in December 1848 which popularised the practice. The first Christmas card was produced in 1843. Within forty years, helped by the introduction of the 1⁄2d postage stamp, Christmas cards were in mass circulation. As The Times made clear in 1883 and applicable to the invention as a whole:

This wholesome custom has been . . . frequently the happy means of ending strifes, cementing broken friendships and strengthening family and neighbourhood ties in all conditions of life. In this respect the Christmas card undoubtedly fulfils a high end, for cheap postage has constituted it almost exclusively the modern method of conveying Christmas wishes, and the increasing popularity of the custom is for this reason, if no other, a matter for congratulations. (Quoted in Golby and Purdue 2000: 70)

By the 1890s the Post Office was already finding it difficult to deal with the annual increase in mail. Significantly, like the first Christmas card, most cards ignored the Nativity and depicted instead evergreens, snowscapes, children playing, Father Christmas and robin redbreasts, providing further evidence of the decentred position of Christianity in the new Christmas celebrations.

Christmas crackers were invented by Tom Smith in 1846. Around the same period the pantomime first became associated with Christmas, its content becoming based on nursery tales. By the 1870s music hall stars were beginning to play the leading roles, anticipating the practice of contemporary pantomimes featuring pop and soap stars. Again, it is in the 1840s that Christmas presents first begin to be given at Christmas rather than at New Year. It is also at around this time that giving Christmas presents begins to lose its links to patronage: that is, giving as a confirmation of social status, giving without expectation of reciprocation. What is gradually established instead is an economy of giving amongst equals.

Father Christmas/Santa Claus is a latecomer to the new festivities. Significantly, he does not feature in the key ideological text of the new invention, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). He gradually


emerges, mostly from the USA, between the 1860s and 1930s, most significantly in the drawings of Thomas Nast and the illustrations of Haddon H. Sundblom. The evolution of his image finally stops with Sundblom’s Coca-Cola advertisements, which first appeared in 1931. Before then he might appear dressed in green, purple, blue or white. Moreover, he may appear human or as an elf. Although Coca-Cola did not invent Father Christmas/Santa Claus, it can claim to have finally fixed his identity. By the 1880s his presence is an important addition to the new department stores, where it is now possible to buy Christmas decorations.

By this time Christmas shopping, undoubtedly the central event in the new invention, is taking place a month or six weeks before Christmas Day. Two accounts from 1885 make this very clear:

The presentation of ‘boxes’ and souvenirs is the same in America as in England . . . everybody expects to give and receive. A month before the event the fancy stores are crowded all day long with old and young in search of suitable presents, and every object is purchased . . . If the weather is fine, the principal streets are thronged. (Quoted in Miall 1978: 11)

The note of preparation for the great festival . . . was sounded early in November when the windows of the stationers, the bookshops, and the railway stalls became suddenly gay with the coloured plates of Christmas numbers innumerable, has increased in volume as time went on. Now, on the eve of the great day, there is not a street in the capital containing a shop, from its broadest thoroughfare to its narrowest by-way, that has not decked its windows for the Christmas market. (11–12)

What the new urban middle class invented was a Christmas with a firm emphasis on commercialism. Its central organising figure was Santa Claus/Father Christmas and not Jesus Christ. If a nativity was being celebrated, it was the birth of a market economy underpinned by the new power of industrialisation. The profoundly commercial-secular nature of the invention has made possible its incredible international success. Even an officially atheist society like the People’s Republic of China has no difficulty in embracing the festival.

‘God Bless Us, Every One’: The Politics of Charity

Charity is central to the Christmas invented by the new urban middle class. If what was invented was commercial out of instinct, it was charitable out of a sense of fear and guilt. The 1840s in England were known as the ‘hungry forties’, a period of economic slump, political unrest and


intense suffering and misery among the working class (Cole and Postgate 1976).

The first Christmas card, commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and designed by J. C. Horsley, has at its centre not the Nativity but a representation of a typical middle-class family sitting down to Christmas dinner. On one side of the card we see the poor being given food, while on the other side they are being given clothes. The implication is quite clear; the celebration of the middle-class Christmas must include a consideration of the less fortunate. This argument is even more explicit in the text which is at the very heart of the invention of Christmas as an event organised around charity, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, first published on 19 December 1843. The enormous popularity of the story of Scrooge’s social redemption, not just as a novel (in its tenth edition by December 1844) but


in theatre productions and public readings, made this the central text in the invention of Christmas. But to be clear, A Christmas Carol did not invent Christmas, as has been claimed by the Sunday Telegraph (18 December 1988), when it described Dickens as ‘the man who invented Christmas’. His most recent biographer has made the same claim in slightly more guarded phrasing: ‘Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas’ (Ackroyd 1990: 34). But what Dickens did do was to popularise what was being invented; in particular, he made material its organising ideology of charity. As Golby and Purdue say of Dickens’s novel: ‘in it Christmas becomes a bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be’ (2000: 45). The novel points ‘to the social problems of the present and anxieties about the future’ (45). When Dickens gave a reading of the novel in Boston on Christmas Eve 1867, it produced among his American audience what we might call the novel’s ideal reader:

Among the multitude that surged out of the building came a Mr and Mrs Fairbanks (the former was the head of a large-scale factory), who had journeyed from Johnsburg, Vermont, for the occasion. Returning to their apartments in Boston, Mrs Fairbanks observed that her husband was particularly silent and absorbed in thought, while his face bore an expression of unusual seriousness. She ventured some remark which he did not appear to notice. Later, as he continued to gaze into the fire, she inquired the cause of his

reverie, to which he replied: ‘I feel that after listening to Mr Dickens’s reading of A Christmas Carol tonight I should break the custom we have hitherto observed of opening the works on Christmas Day’. Upon the morrow they were closed. The following year a further custom was established, when not only were the works closed on Christmas Day, but each and every factory hand received the gift of a turkey. (Quoted in Golby and Purdue 2000: 48)


[...] Scrooge has to learn what his former partner Marley had learned too late: ‘The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’ (Dickens 1985: 62). Scrooge is, to use a phrase from Matthew Arnold, ‘drugged with business’ (quoted in Storey 1985: 224). As if speaking directly to Scrooge, Arnold argued: ‘Money-making is not enough by itself. Industry is not enough by itself . . . The need in man for intellect and knowledge, his desire for beauty, his instinct for society, and for pleasurable and graceful forms of society, require to have their stimulus felt also, felt and satisfied’ (ibid.).


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