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The pagan feast of Christmas

The Yule Log and mistletoe have roots in Druid and Viking worship, and the Roman festival of Saturnalia celebrated the winter solstice

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

The Book of Christmas: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Festive Traditions Christopher Winn

Hardie Grant Books, pp.152, £12.99

This book, an excellent history of Christmas, made me think of a Christmas cartoon strip I once saw in Viz magazine. There’s a couple. It’s Christmas Eve. The man goes out to buy the woman a present. On the way, he steps into a pub for a few drinks. Much later, drunk, having missed the shops, he tries his luck at a petrol station. But too many people have had the same idea; the only thing left to buy is engine oil. This, anyway, is how I remember it, ending deliciously with the man in a terrible dilemma.

Why, you might ask, would this genteel book about the history of Christmas, with its sections on carols, and Christmas trees, and the choir of King’s College, Cambridge — why would all this remind me of a drunk in a petrol station? I’ll come to that in a minute. But let me first say that, if you are going to be sitting among relatives at Christmas, one of the things you’ll be talking about will be Christmas itself. Christmas this, Christmas that. And if you do find yourself doing it, having read this book would be an enormous boon.


Christmas cards. Christmas food. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’. At the very start of this book, there’s a list of Christmas songs, or lines from Christmas songs, and I pretty much guarantee that one of these will trigger a Proustian rush of memory. I used to think the Wizzard song was actually about addiction, about someone wanting the same thing over and over to the point of self-harm. Others will be transported by the words ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree’, a lyric that might have arisen from Anglo-French confusion: ‘The French word for partridge is perdrix (pronounced ‘peardree’).

What are the best-selling Christmas songs of all time? Number one: ‘White Christmas’, with ‘well over’ 100 million sales. Number two: ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, not far behind. It’s what you’d think. After that, there’s ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’, written by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé during a hot California summer. Wells jotted down ‘lyrics about winter as a way of mentally keeping cool.’ Tormé looked at the list: Jack Frost, Eskimos and so on. ‘I think you’ve got a song here,’ he said. Here in the UK, Paul McCartney has been at Number One more times than any other artist. Next: Cliff Richard. Third is a surprise, though. It’s Mel C, from the Spice Girls.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a book about popular music. It’s posher than that. Winn tells us about how Christmas, the Christian festival, is actually a version of ancient Druid and Norse winter festivals. Druids burned logs during the dark days to ward off evil spirits; Vikings celebrated ‘Jul’, another name for Odin the Sun God. Hence Yule logs. Christmas ‘absorbed, adapted and eventually replaced’ all this old stuff. But it’s still in there, just as, I don’t know, Cliff Richard’s ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ might be faintly remembered in 1,000 years’ time. Everything gets braided together. You’ll be sitting there, pulling crackers or talking about the old days with Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies, but really you’re reliving the Roman festival of Saturnalia, toasting the idea of sol invictus on the shortest day, the ‘birthday of the everlasting sun’.

And that’s what made me think of the Viz cartoon. Sure, it’s about people who want to avoid each other at this special time of year, who don’t like each other, who would rather just get drunk. But something makes them go to that petrol station. And, whatever it is, Christopher Winn captures it perfectly.


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