Some years ago, when my children were very small, I was dismayed to hear my son pipe up that little Johnny at school said that his dad had told him there was no such person as Santa Claus. I knew the family kept Christmas and wondered how such a miserable pillock could not only undermine his own child’s pleasure, but other children’s too. How dare he? It being the season of peace and goodwill, I resisted the urge to seek out little Johnny’s dad and roundly chastise him. Besides, he was undoubtedly a very confused, sad, man. Instead, I painstakingly explained to my son that Santa Claus was magic and, if you believe in magic, then Santa will be real for you. This worked a treat for some considerable time – maybe until my son was in his early 20s. You’re probably impressed that I didn’t take the opportunity at the time to save hundreds of pounds in the years ahead; but that would’ve spoiled the magic.
The point is that there is a fine line between myth and reality. Fact and fiction can become blurred, truth can indeed be relative and a goodly part of the Christmas story necessitates a suspension of disbelief.
If Christmas is not part of your culture, you’ll probably want to skip the rest of this. Even some Christians do not celebrate Christmas. But if it is part of your culture – and that includes the vast majority in Britain – the fact that the festival, along with all its associated rituals, has been with us for so long is almost humbling. Whatever it means to you – whether it is part of the Greatest Story on Earth, an ancient midwinter feast, a welcome day of relaxation with the family, an over-commercialised stressful time that you’d really rather didn’t happen – stop and think about it for a minute. Our parents, their parents, the parents before that – and so on back through the centuries – all marked Christmas in some way, as most of us still do. We owe almost all of our present festive custom and practice to people that belong to the ranks of the long dead. And it wouldn’t still be with us without a heady mix of faith, story-telling, mystery and enchantment; in short, Christmas magic.
To be fair, a great deal about Christmas is nothing whatever to do with the birth of Christ. It is intriguing, for example, to imagine some old German or Norseman, arguably long before Jesus was a glint in anyone’s eye, introducing the first Yule Log. It was a symbol of fire and light in the dark, cold, northern winter; bet he never thought it would one day turn into a chocolate-covered cake at the supermarket. Even so, the old Midwinter Festival of Yule, and its log, are both as much a part of our festive tradition as chocolate cake and a whole bunch of other Christmas stuff, including the date.
No one knows which year Christ was born – anywhere between 7BC and 29AD as far as I can make out. And no one knows the date. Some people think He was born in April. Or May. Or June. Or March. But not 25th December. Our heathen ancestors in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated the Winter Solstice around the 21st or 22nd December – and modern pagans probably still do. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia between 17th – 23rd December. The 25th was dies natalis solis invicti, ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’. These festivities could be times of serious merriment – no humbug. December 25th was also the feast day of another deity, Mithras, much favoured by the Roman military. There’s a Temple of Mithras just by Hadrian’s Wall – not sure of the Christmas service times, though. Incidentally, Mithras wore a red cap just like Santa Claus. Anyway, as with so many things, Christianity grafted Christ’s Mass onto earlier traditions; it wasn’t until the 4th century that the official date, 25th December was settled – the birthday of the unconquered son and 9 months after the annunciation. It is celebrated on 6th or 7th January in parts of the world. Even now, in Britain and other countries with a strong Northern European culture, Christmas iconography often ignores the climate of Jesus’ homeland and focuses on winter. But, irrespective of the chosen date and prevailing weather, there’s always a bit of Christmas magic waking up that morning: “Oh. It’s Christmas! Merry Christmas, everyone!”
Much of our Christmas has been created by the Victorians. Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge (clearly, an ancestor of Little Johnny’s dad) have much to answer for. Though it is not true that Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree into Britain – that honour goes to George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – Albert, and Victoria, helped popularise it. Actually, bringing evergreen branches inside for decoration was an established custom long before that. Different trees have particular properties, often sacred, in different cultures. The use of mistletoe, holly, ivy and evergreen fir trees are traditions dating back thousands of years, warding off evil spirits and reminding us of lasting life, though some say that the prickly holly leaves represent the crown of thorns and the red berries drops of Christ’s blood. In that case, shouldn’t we be saving our holly until Easter? It doesn’t matter; it’s all part of Christmas magic.
Boxing Day, however, is a Christian custom: in medieval times, this was the day when the contents of alms boxes were distributed to the poor. Well into the 20th century, people used to refer, not to a Christmas present, but to a ‘Christmas box’. Giving, though possibly inspired by pagan practices, is also part of the Christian tradition, perhaps started by the wise men – who would surely have asked for a Sat Nav in their stockings if one had been available two thousand years ago. Perhaps they will as the Christmas story evolves. And it probably will – it certainly has so far. For example, the Bible doesn’t actually say how many wise men there were – we only assume there were three, presumably because of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet, we see three kings from orient are in most Nativity scenes; actually, the wise men, or Magi, found Jesus in His house sometime after His birth, not in a stable or barn. Farm animals also figure in most Nativity scenes, yet the Bible is silent on that too. But the story of Christ’s birth is a wonderful one; and, for some, a Nativity scene, complete with wise men, shepherds, sheep, cattle, donkey and all the rest, is part of Christmas magic.
Which brings us neatly back to Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, or whatever you want to call him. A modern myth is that Santa was invented by a bright ad-man at Coca-Cola. Sorry, chaps; rubbish. Father Christmas, the personification of Christmas for many in Britain, is certainly a composite of many figures, and comes in many guises. St Nicholas, the patron saint of children (as well as of sailors and pawnbrokers), who morphed into Santa Claus, was a 4th century bishop of Myra in the Byzantine Empire, now in modern Turkey. He is reputed to have worn red robes and to have been renowned for his generosity. One story is that he had an insane habit of dropping gold down chimneys; naturally, the gold fell into stockings drying conveniently by the fire. In pagan times, a King Winter figure would have had a central role in festivities. Another contributory character in the Santa saga came from the Norman red-robed ‘Lord of Misrule’, whose job was to ensure the Christmas party went with a swing. In Reformation Britain, saints were not universally popular and the less Catholic figure of Father Christmas evolved. He, in turn, was deemed too ‘Popish’ and gay during the years of the Republic Commonwealth (1649-1660) – though joy apparently made a come-back after the restoration of the monarchy. Father Christmas has had a variety of robes too – sometimes green, sometimes tan. However, many believe that our 21st century perception of Santa Claus, complete with reindeer and an arrival on Christmas Eve, derives from the poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ (‘T’was the night before Christmas’) published as recently as 1823 and generally attributed to the American Clement Clarke Moore. What do you mean, you haven’t read it?! It’s part of Christmas magic.
An entire book could be written about the fascinating origins and history of Christmas, as well as the different practices around the world. Suffice to say that customs ancient and modern are embedded in our Christmas and, to be honest, most of them stretch credulity and necessitate the suspension of disbelief mentioned earlier. As a bit of an agnostic, for current purposes I don’t suppose it matters which bits are Christian and which bits aren’t – there’s a joke running around about there being too much religion at Christmas anyway.
Obviously, the festive season means different things to different people – and absolutely nothing to some. But, personally, I find it easy to embrace the whole panoply of Christmas simply because it is fundamentally a Good Thing. There is so much sorrow in the world; Christmas is a time for hope and kindness, for counting our blessings and keeping happy memories of those we have been, and are, lucky to know. Let’s celebrate the rolling year, as our ancestors have done for so long. Let’s sing carols, eat cake, give presents, endlessly listen to Noddy Holder, Bing Crosby and all the rest, watch corny movies, play games, fill our houses with tinsel, love, laughter and wonderful smells. And let’s not give a fig for whether any of the stories are factually correct, because if we believe them, then they can be; it is Christmas magic. We can also try to mark it as a time of peace in the name of Christianity, for that is our culture and tradition (with a nod on the side to the Old Ones, of course) – or in the name of whatever you like; and if enough people did that, that really would be Christmas magic.
Did I tell you about the Christmas Hedgehog? It was a tiny plastic toy I mischievously introduced into my children’s nativity scene and it is now just as much a part of their Christmas as mince pies and crackers. Don’t let anyone tell them he doesn’t exist.
Merry Christmas, one and all. I think it’s appropriate to leave you with a link to Greg Lake performing I believe in Father Christmas, don’t you?
Greg Lake died on 7th December 2016 aged 69.