It was whilst nursing my bad toe, sustained in an accident putting up the tinsel, that I started to muse on this world-wide joke perpetrated upon an unsuspecting and innocent world by the English – Christmas.
It is an act of cultural hegemony that had done more than anything else to establish a single cultural baseline across the world. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are in late December – OK, probably not those bits of desert run by the IS nutters, but anywhere else, you’ll be greeted with tinsel, poor depictions of an obese man in a red suit and badly painted glass balls. And tinny renditions of famous carols over the loudspeakers.
And it’s all, 100 %, English.
The original leg puller was, of course, Dickens. He wrote out the whole script for Christmas. The snow, the robins, the Christmas lunch, the carolling, the enforced jollying and corralling up of family into a single room where boredom and booze will wreck their vengeance with predictable results about an hour after the Queen’s Speech (another cultural reference copied by world leaders). He did this with cunning, by crafting together elements of Christmas’s from across Europe into one single tradition.
He was able assisted in this by his fellow practical joker Prince Albert. Although being German, he probably thought the whole thing was serious. Albert loved Christmas and insisted Victoria, and hence her court, and hence the whole Victorian establishment, follow the routines year in and out.
And from there it spread. Across the world. A perfectly parcelled up meme for the last two weeks of December, a feast of consumerism and excess with bad food. Albert insisted upon giving lots of presents at Christmas, although he gave them out on Christmas Eve (a tradition still followed by the Royal Family). This never caught on with the populace, probably because it then doesn’t give the kids much to do while the parents are cooking the turkey / opening the first bottle of sherry at 11am (hey, it’s Christmas!).
Nobody ever includes Christmas Dinner into the long list of English culinary excrescences, but it’s as English as Fish and Chips or Sunday Lunch, a feast with which it shares many underlying principles. Who else but the English would put exactly the same ingredients into a pie, a pudding and a cake? And then be proud of themselves?
Even in Victorian times it was a feast of excess and that included consumerism. From the very first Christmas cards -first produced and sold in mass in 1843- to presents, the whole thing never really included much Christianity.
And that’s because Christianity was always trying to shoe-horn into the whole shebang. It’s always been a pagan festival of excess, held at the beginning of winter and celebrating life in the midst of the deep cold. The bishops have always been trying to force their religion into the pre-existing festival, but it never really took hold. The pagan roots ran deep in this festival and the veneer of religion and human emotion run deep in this festival.
And that’s why the festival ran wild. It appeals to the very human instinct in all of us – a time of family and excess and presents and excited children. And for those who care about such things, there is the veneer of Christian respectability giving Adults a reason to participate.
So yes, Christmas is England’s gift to the world. Elements have evolved over the last century but they were all invented by the English. Father Christmas? He first appeared in a modern form in Victorian England. Carols, crackers, wrapping paper, cards, tinsel, wreaths…. all parcelled up and explained by Dickens. Even non religious Christmas themed songs, the precursors to today’s Xmas Hits, were popularised by the Victorians and sung.
But not New Year’s. That’s got a strong Scottish influence. They’re the ones who go mad over it whilst the English are still nursing their Christmas hang-overs.
And what does Auld lang syne actually mean? Anyone know what old acquaintances aren’t supposed to forget?