The spirit of Old Christmas lives on

There was one of those infographics on Facebook a while back. It said, “Winter Solstice: get naked, drink mead and party like a Pagan, because a Christmas spent queuing at Argos is just rubbish.”

Well it used a different word than “rubbish”, but you get the idea.

Since when did Christmas become a marketing tool for the corporations? All those bland adverts selling us ready made luxuries for the Christmas table. It’s depressing, it truly is.

When I was growing up my Nan made the Christmas pud. She put a silver sixpence into the bowl and we took it in turns to stir the mix. Whoever found the sixpence on Christmas Day would have good luck in the coming year.

That’s what Christmas is really all about: these peculiar traditions which we would revive every year. Like going out on a winter’s morning to gather the holly. Like kissing under the mistletoe. Like the Yule Log burning in the grate and the star on top of the Christmas tree.

All of these traditions have roots going back through the centuries, to the very dawn of history perhaps.

The Vikings celebrated Christmas, as did the Romans, as did the people who built Stonehenge.

They called it by different names and it took place on slightly different dates, on or around the solstice, but it was still clearly the Christmas we know today.

The Romans knew it as the Saturnalia, in honour of the agricultural god Saturn, after whom our Saturday is named. It was a time of feasting, gift-giving and partying, said to be a return to a mythical golden age when Saturn ruled the Earth.

That’s what gives Christmas its special magic: this sense of something deeply-rooted in history which we are bringing to life again for the coming year.

Interestingly depictions of Saturn in Roman art show a notable similarity to Father Christmas: an old man with a long white beard.

The Vikings called Christmas “Yule” and many of our current traditions come from them. Not only the Yule Log, but also the Christmas tree has its origins in Viking practice. They would decorate evergreen trees with carved runes and small images of the gods, as well as food and clothing, in order to propitiate the tree spirits, to encourage the return of Spring.

Yule was also a time of drinking and feasting and riotous excess. Not much has changed then.

In Medieval times the Christmas festivities were guided by an officiator or Master of Ceremonies known as “The Lord of Misrule”. During the Christmas period this character, chosen by lot from amongst the peasants, ruled supreme. The ordinary rules of behaviour were reversed. Masters served the servants, and the servants became masters, while the Lord of Misrule himself commanded absolute obedience.

John Stow, a Tudor writer, in his Survey Of London (1598), called the Lord of Misrule a “Master of Merry Disports”, and described his role as to “make the rarest of pastimes to delight the beholders”. The reign of this mad priest of anarchy (known as the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland) lasted throughout the Christmas period and beyond—from Halloween to Candlemas, over three months in all – during which time there were “fine and subtle disguisings, Masks and Mummeries” as well as cards and other games.

The Lord of Misrule, in fact, was another variant of the old god Saturn, who also had it in his power to reverse the social order.

The slogan of Christmas was “the World Turned Upside Down”, and although things went back to normal after the Christmas season had finished, there can’t have been many members of the servant class who didn’t wish they could stay that way forever.

Philip Stubbes – a puritan writer as you can tell by the tone of disapproval – in his Anatomy of Abuses (1583) described Christmas in the following terms:

More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.

During Cromwell’s reign, there was an attempt to legislate against Christmas, marked in a popular ballad of the time, called The World Is Turned Upside Down:

Listen to me and you shall hear news hath not been this thousand year/Since Herod, Caesar and many more, You never heard the like before/Holy-days are despis’d, New fashions are devis’d, Old Christmas is kicked out of Town/Yet let’s be content and the times lament, You see the world turned upside down.

Unfortunately for the Puritan legislators, Christmas was way too popular with the masses for the attempt to ban it to succeed. The people simply carried on doing what they had always done, enjoying the festive season in all its riotous splendour.

Is it too much to imagine that the vain determination to get rid of this popular festival might have helped bring about the restoration of Charles II in 1660?

The unruly atmosphere of these earlier festivals still holds to this day. It remains, what it always has been, a festival of lights in the darkest part of the year, a feast of plenty in a time of paucity, a celebration of excess to banish the ghosts of the passing year, a chance to remake the world again.

It is anything but bland.

Well TV might have replaced the Yule Log as the thing to watch, and alcopops the Wassail as the thing to drink, but the spirit of Old Christmas lives on.

And wherever people gather around the table and raise a toast to Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men, there the real meaning of Christmas is found.


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