Christmas has been given the green light by the government this year less because it marks the birth of Christ than because retailers and the hospitality industry desperately need it to go ahead. Other feast days in the Christian calendar still belong to the church. Christmas is the feast day that a fundamentally secular nation has made its own.
It’s become part of the festive tradition for Christians to mourn this as the ultimate triumph of commercialisation and self-indulgence. But it might comfort them this year to know that their anxiety has deep roots. Folk memories of Oliver Cromwell banning Christmas — however distorted they may be — remain sufficiently enduring that the Prime Minister, one of life’s natural Charles IIs, must surely have been desperate not to be associated with them. Even so, if ever it were possible to feel sympathy with the Puritans and their conviction that ‘Revelling, Dicing, Carding, Mumming, and all Licentious Liberty’ at Christmas risked calamity for a nation, it is surely now. Parliament in 1643 summoned England to mark the midwinter season with ‘solemn humiliation’ rather than with the traditional festivities because it dreaded that a festival of life might be transformed into a sump of death. Puritans were not killjoys for the sake of it. They were deeply serious, principled people. In 2020 they have many heirs.
So too, however, do those who opposed them. Today, as in the 17th century, the yearning to feast and make merry in the sombre depths of midwinter ranks as something more than mere irresponsibility. On Christmas Day in 1608, settlers in Jamestown wandering the snowy American wilderness ‘were never more merry, nor fed on more plentiful of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread; nor never had better fires in England’. The echo was of traditions older than the Reformation: of the generosity with which gentry were expected at Christmas-time to furnish their tables, and to open up their halls to the hungry and the homeless. That the birth of Christ was most worthily marked by offering to those at the bottom of the pile a brief liberation from their miseries was an assumption widely held in the Middle Ages. Exported to America, it was then exported back to Britain. The coming of Christ into the world, so Christians believed, constituted history’s profoundest rupture. A celebration of Christmas that did not pay due acknowledgement to this was not a celebration worth having. Children who woke up on Christmas morning to find a stocking magically full of presents could experience joy of a kind that was the very essence of the festival. Saint Nicholas — Santa Claus — gave to them something far more precious than toys or sweets: the chance to imagine a world in which generosity truly was all.
The more that capitalism spread its wings, the wealthier that society grew, the bulkier that the stockings laid on the feet of sleeping children became, the more it came to be taken for granted that the truest meaning of Christmas lay in an emancipation from the daily grind of making money. To value profit over giving was to say ‘humbug’ to its very spirit. ‘Cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel’: such were the links in the chain that clasped the middle of the 19th century’s most famous ghost, and wound about him like a tail. Dead though old Marley was, as dead as a doornail, he could not escape the fetters that in life had bound him to the workplace. To Charles Dickens — a novelist always more interested in how his characters spent their money than in how they made it — this was the ultimate hell. Christmas, in his most famous story, was cast as an escape from the counting house into a dimension where earthly wealth had no purpose save to furnish tables with a plenitude of good things to eat, and to oil the wheels of friendship, and to care for infant cripples: ‘the great furnace of real happiness’, as G.K. Chesterton once put it.
This strangest of Christmases, then, is not nearly as profound a repudiation of its Christian spirit as at first sight it may appear. The anxieties that long ago shadowed the festival are back, more devoutly felt than they have been for a very long time. Simultaneously, the promise that it offers of life and light and joy blazes all the more brilliantly for the surrounding darkness. Christmas has rarely seemed more ambivalent, more contested, more significant.