James Sturcke: The commercial roots of Christmas





early October, shortly before the shops began to fill up with singing Santas and fake trees, a senior Scottish churchman urged an end to "plastic" Christmas.
"It is of great concern that so many people feel under pressure to present the perfect Christmas," said the Right Rev Alan McDonald. "Stop thinking of presents and start thinking about the present!" was the speech's catchily headlined press release.

Concerns over the rampant commercialism of Christmas are almost as old as the festival itself. Back in the late fourth century, St Gregory of Nazianzus was urging Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus "not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world".

But Christmas as we know it - spending December 25 opening presents and eating turkey - is a relatively new phenomenon, says Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol.
"About 200 years ago a lot of people did not celebrate Christmas day at all. Those that did had to celebrate it as part of a package between new year and 12th Night," says Hutton. "It was at new year that you exchanged presents. Queen Victoria being old fashioned never gave a Christmas present but gave new year's presents until the end of her life."

Christmas evolved from pagan festivals and Roman celebrations taking place around the time of the mid-winter solstice and new year, on to which early Christians tagged the birth of Jesus. The fact that it coincided with the least productive season in agrarian economies made it a ripe time to idle, and protracted winter festivals were a feature of medieval times.

After the Reformation, Christmas's fortunes ebbed and flowed according to whether Catholics or Protestants were dominant in the country, with Thomas Cromwell famously banning it for over a dozen years in the mid-17th century.

Even after it was restored to the calendar, Christmas itself continued to be relatively simple.

Yet, by the 1850s, Christmas was recognisably modern with decorations, candles, cards, seasonal foods, charitable giving and a recognisable commercial season. What triggered the change?

"The invention of the middle-class family which required a festival that symbolised its strengths," says Professor Hutton. "And so you get symbols around which the family can rally, like the Christmas tree and turkey. You get the children brought in a big way with new year's gifts transferred to Christmas presents. And you get Santa Claus brought in from America."

But Mark Connelly, a reader of modern British history at Kent University, insists that Christmas was far from a "moribund" affair before the Victorians adopted trees and turkey.

"Two hundred years ago you would definitely have seen Christmas celebrated. Undoubtedly you would have already found the first signs of a commercial culture and the use of Christmas as a chance to sell things. That was starting to establish itself with the provisioning market. There were certain things you were meant to eat at Christmas. That was already established."

But the Victorians did change the face of Christmas. Why? Because they were terrified that time was moving too quickly and events were spiralling out of control, a notion triggered by rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, says Dr Connelly....


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