When anyone asks me, ‘did you have a good Christmas?’ around this time, I usually answer in the present continuous. As Shakespeare knew well, there are twelve days to the festival, though these days the New Year celebration comes in the middle of these. Apparently, it was the French who ruined our traditional Christmas by, in 1564, decreeing that the New Year began on 1st January, not 1st April, as it had done up to then. We’re not exactly sure when the English followed suit, but the tradition of giving New Year cards and gifts and cards continued, for a joke, on what then became ‘April Fools’ Day‘. Jokes have to be made by mid-day on the day because that was originally when everybody had to get back to work after the first twelve hours of the New Year. Of course, most ‘gifts’ would have been given shortly after mid-night and people would have been given the twelve hours to sleep off the excesses of the night before.
When the Puritan Parliament prohibited Christmas festivities in the early 1640s, it was following the example set by the Scottish Presbyterians, since it needed their support in their increasingly common cause against the King and his revision of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, together with the imposition of an Episcopalian system on the Scots. Of course, at this time Scotland and England had separate parliaments, though ruled over by the same monarch. Christmas was viewed as a ‘Papist’ festival, lasting over twelve days of feasting, when little work got done. It was obvious to all that many of these festivities were pagan in origin and had no more to do with Christ’s birth than May Day had to do with Mary. While such festivities were restored in the “Merrie England” of Charles II, in Scotland they continued to be frowned upon until the 1950s, when the power of the Kirk finally began to wane, and the two-day Christmas holiday was officially reinstated. This explains why, to this day, the secular festival of “Hogmanay” or New Year remains the more important festival in Scotland, marked there by a two-day public holiday.
‘Holy Days’ are now reverting to being ‘holidays’ of course, as the now ubiquitous American English greeting ‘Happy holidays’ indicates, though, as my Vicar once reminded me, neither should Christians greet with ‘Happy Christmas’ until it actually comes, on the 25th, unless they are going away from their own parish. When St Augustine came to Canterbury, he realised the impracticability of eliminating former pagan customs in England. He didn’t object to people slaughtering an ox for the feast at a Christian celebration as they had done at their former rituals. This was called a ‘barbecue’, a word which describes the framework or table on which the ox is roasted, possibly an altar. It’s amusing to think that every time British or Australian people wheel out the ‘barbie’, they are in fact partaking in an ancient, pagan ritual, worshiping at the altar, no doubt with the ‘high-priest’ or ‘arch-druid’ in charge! A case of life imitating religion! Of course, only Aussies are able to do this ‘al fresco’ at Christmas, though our more hardy perennial ancestors would have seen it as being as much a winter custom as a fair-weather one, if not more so, gathering round the huge fire for warmth.
The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of course, these customs were not always welcomed by some clerics and certainly received a set-back under the strict Presbyterian governments of the mid-seventeenth century in England and Scotland. The easy return of ‘Merrie England’ under Charles II suggests that this has been exaggerated in its long-term effects, however. The motivation behind the discouragement of holidays was not solely religious, often reflecting a dissatisfaction with industrial or agricultural output, like Henry Ford‘s more recent support for Prohibition in the USA. In twelfth century Europe, including England, peasants’ holidays amounted to eight weeks in the year, with major festivals occupying ‘the octave’, eight days. Christmas, of course, headed the list, with its twelve days, with fun and games extending until Twelfth Night, with no New Year to get in the way then. While Church attendance was duly observed throughout, much of the celebration continued to owe far more to pre-Christian customs, which were not always very reverent.
Many festivals were lost with the new working patterns required by industrialisation from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, when Prince Albert and Charles Dickens effectively re-invented Christmas, importing German customs and reviving other more traditionally English ones. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is often misread, with Scrooge appearing as an isolated miser, whereas the author actually meant it as an attack on the widespread support the Malthusian Poor Law System which all but did away with the system of outdoor relief for the ‘deserving poor’ which had existed since Elizabethan times. Just as a culture of ‘austerity’ has grown up in recent years, the 1830s had seen much popular support among the Victorian middle classes for the need to ‘reduce the surplus population’. Dickens was reminding these better-off Anglicans and Nonconformists of an older form of puritanism, which was most recently epitomised in the maxim of the great Methodist preacher John Wesley – earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Dickens was not against the values of diligence and thrift, but he urged people not to forget the ‘greatest’ value, ‘love’ of fellow humans, or caritas in Latin, giving us the word charity, or philanthropy and philadelphia from the Greek. A holiday visit to the theatre to see a clever adaptation of the great story reminded me of these original themes, its title, in Hungarian, Isten Pénze, reminding audiences that, in the end, all the wealth that any of us have belongs to God.
In the twentieth century, with automation and computerisation, we experienced a return to a shorter working week, broken up by longer holidays, taken at different times, according to personal preferences and family priorities, rather than being dictated by the Church, Government, or corporate industrialists. However, we still feel the need for common customs, whether Christian or pagan in origin, perhaps even more so in a fast-changing world.
[Edinburgh from the castle, Scotland] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
Festivals need not be spectacular events, but events which bind us together with significant activities. There is nothing so sad as a child on holiday saying, ‘I’m bored…I have nothing to do!’ Some festivals in Britain have been brought into our lives by followers of other faiths, enabling mutual understanding and integration in schools and society. All religions celebrate with festivals of light, their longing for a future world which is pure, peaceful and commonly good.
New Year and Christmas have competed for popularity since the calendar has been in its present form and the two festivals have never been equally celebrated, for instance, in England, Wales and Scotland. As already noted, in England and Wales, Christmas has been the major festival, although as one travels north and west the emphasis on New Year ‘wassails’ and ‘waits’ increases, whereas in Scotland, certainly since the Calvinist Reformation, New Year, or ‘Hogmanay’ is kept with greater vigour and excitement.
Here in Hungary, everyone is getting ready for ‘Szilveszter Nap’ (St Silvester’s Day) as it is known. So, whether continuing to celebrate Christmas, or welcoming the New Year, we’re all looking forward, or trying to!