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From the NS archive: The Christmas problem

6 December 1930: The revolt against presents is joined by the postmen, who develop a painful ailment which they call “Christmas back”.

By Rose Macaulay

Is Christmas on its way out? So asked Rose Macaulay in this December 1930 article. Our pagan ancestors waged wars for and against various feast days, and many religious groups have historically found the Christian celebration of 25 December troublesome. In Britain, however, “there seems to be no record of an age before our rude forefathers observed this festival with feasting, shouting, gaming, mumming”. Here Christmas has for centuries been “a steady progress upward”, but as people tire of writing card after card, spending ever more money on presents and time on wrapping them, might Christmas’s time be up? “For this is the fate of feasts when they have been carried too far, farther, that is, than the spirit of a people will endure. The breaking-point comes.”

There are whispers of another Christmas revolt. There have been such whispers and such revolts on and off for the last twenty or thirty centuries, for neither the keeping of December the Twenty-fifth nor of any other day is a novelty to the human race, and, where a day is observed, you may be sure that there will be some who will desire that it should not be observed. Our pagan ancestors, in the chilly regions of the Danube and the Baltic, waged intertribal wars on this point, some maintaining that too much fuss was made of Wodin, Freya and Thor on the days appointed for them; others that fuss, like mead, was one of those things of which one cannot make too much, be the occasion what it will.

The same difference of opinion concerning their festal occasions occurred among the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Jews, the Mithraic Persians (whose great day was the same as ours, December 25th), the ancient Britons, and the Christians from the third century down to the twentieth. There will always be those who feel, with Jehovah, that your new moons and Sabbaths, your calling of assemblies and appointed feasts, they cannot away with, they are a trouble unto them, they are weary to bear them. Origen pronounced the festal keeping of Christmas to be positively irreverent, and so, since his day, have thought many others, such as Quakers, Presbyterians and Plymouth Brethren (though these have all come partially round to it now).

The curious thing about some of these objectors is that even at their most anti-Christmas periods, they have not, apparently, felt the distaste for the observance of other days, such as Sunday. Even when the Long Parliament passed its ordinance for the Suppression of Blasphemies and Heresies, including under these the keeping of Christmas, it did not, it appears, include Sunday. Illogical human beings, they suspected Christmas for its pagan ancestry and rites, yet suffered dies solis, far more nakedly pagan in association though it was, despite the Christian dress and Christian name which had been given it by the discreet converters of the heathen. (Can the reason that the weekly Lord’s Day was so beloved of Christendom, from apostolic times on, while other Lord’s Days were often looked at somewhat reluctantly and askance, be that the one gave no trouble, was, in fact, a day of rest, whereas Christmas was suspect from the first as a season of immeasurable toil?)

Anyhow, it seems that human creatures must needs observe some appointed feast-days, and if they get rid of one they fall with all the more zeal for another. We have our fancies among days as among pets; we pick and we choose; some will keep Christmas and some Easter, some the New Year, some the new moon, some Sunday, some Saturday, some birthdays, some dogs, some canaries, and some cats. So long as we keep something or other we are content. Unless, like the hermits and ascetics, we decide to keep nothing except our dignity.

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The Teutonic and Scandinavian races have always had a peculiar addiction to the keeping of Christmas. There seems to be no record of an age before our rude forefathers observed this festival with feasting, shouting, gaming, mumming and, in general, with what the English used to call good cheer. These races have ever been the world’s best Christmas-keepers; so intent have they been on Yule revelry that nothing has been able to keep them from it for long together. The Christian missionaries had to permit them their revelry, their feasting, their dancing, their decking of houses and temples with green, in spite of the prohibitions of these pagan vanities by the austere Councils of the Church. Not all the decrees of Church Councils, the wrath of parish priests, the ordinances of Puritan parliaments, could suppress the Saxon Christmas, which always reappeared, noisier, jollier, more Bacchanalian than ever, through every change of land, religion, dynasty and constitution.

The Scotch, on the other hand, not being Saxons, took the opportunity of the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in their land practically to abolish Christmas, which had for some centuries been troubling their thrifty souls. In this matter, as in so many others, they were obviously influenced by their allies the French, an even thriftier nation, who have never troubled about Christmas much. Both these nations prefer to observe New Year’s Day, which gives them all the outlet they require for their high spirits and good will.

In this country the Christmas business has become, for many centuries, a steady progress upward. True, we eat and drink less to-day than of yore; our consumption of boars’ heads, turkeys, geese, puddings and pies, tankards of ale and brandy-punch is, by comparison, contemptible. On the other hand, we have, during the last century, acquired Christmas trees, and Christmas cards, and multiplied Christmas books, Christmas numbers and Christmas shopping. It is said that we English were originally responsible for Christmas trees, those pretty monuments of German industry, since St Boniface, our good Devonshire missionary to the German heathen, made his converts cut down the trees of their sacred groves, but consoled them by encouraging them to use them as Christmas trees to brighten their strange new faith, which the poor Germans have done laboriously ever since, and in the nineteenth century rewarded us for our missionary’s happy idea by sending it back to us through our Germanic court. Against Christmas trees, none but those who have to deck them need murmur; indeed, they make a pretty sight, flourishing in churches, houses, shops and streets, for all the world as if we were still Druids, and wished, like them, to provide the comforts of their forest homes for the sylvan deities who must come and dwell under roofs until the bitter weather be past. No; the revolt of which I speak has little to do with Christmas trees, or even with Christmas decorations, which are mainly resented only by the wives of the clergy and their parochial assistants, who have to wreathe the holly and twine the bay round pulpit and font.

Let us pass to Christmas cards, that strange, bright, fascinating shower which began to rain on us half-way through the Victorian era, and is raining yet. Everyone likes to receive these agreeable and bizarre picturettes, these tokens of good will that fly like birds from home to home, winging over land and sea, reminding us, alas I too often of those whom it were wiser to forget, and whom we have, in point of fact, forgotten; we all, I say, or nearly all, like to receive these charming little objects – but how few of us like sending them! On the vast expenditure of time, envelopes, ink, stamps, and, above all, thought, involved in this industry to those who tackle it seriously, I will not here dwell. Some people settle down to it in August, in the so-called leisure of their summer holidays in this country or another; they will purchase some hundreds of picture postcards, write “Happy Christmas” on them, and dispatch them, and then, think they, they are done with Christmas for the year. But they have under-estimated the hypnotic power of Christmas, for by December they have quite forgot having dispatched these cards, and begin the work all over again.

In the same category as Christmas cards are Christmas presents, only worse, as involving more time, more thought, more money, more trouble, and (if fewer envelopes) brown paper and string in addition. They also make the shops very crowded and peculiar. What a wonderful place Selfridges will be at Christmas time, we are told; and so, indeed, it proves. The stir of revolt is reported to be very active among shop assistants and shoppers. For a certain amount of buying things in shops, a tedious and painful business at best, is necessary in most lives, and how much wearier a task does this become when some thousands of others are buying in the same shop at the same time! The revolt against buying and sending presents is joined, naturally, by the postmen, who develop at this season a very painful ailment which they call “Christmas back.”

A disease not very dissimilar in name is that called Christmas Books, which is contracted by publishers, literary editors and reviewers. The symptoms of this disagreeable malady closely resemble those experienced by the drowning: a feeling of overwhelming suffocation, partial or total loss of memory and power to think, pallor, nausea and faintness, alternating with spasms of insane rage, and, when the patient is coming round (for happily this complaint is not as a rule fatal), sensations of apathy, lassitude and morbid disgust at the sight or thought of that element which occasioned the disease. So painful and prevalent a disease is this that it has driven a large section of our publishers and editors into the van of the revolt.

Allied to this ailment, and similar in symptoms, is the one caused by Christmas Numbers, which mainly affects editors, authors, reviewers and printers. This is a disease of some age, and editors have sickened with it annually from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. I understand that they are at last getting tired of doing so, and mean to make a stand.

Of Christmas bills, Christmas boxes, Christmas carols and Christmas cocks (for the bird of dawning croweth all night long, which is very disturbing) I need scarcely here speak. We all know of these oppressions, and we have supported them for some two thousand years with that impatience which is the mark of the British race. But it is now rumoured that Christmas reached its acme in the year 1929, and has begun this very year to decline. There are certainly signs of this. It is, as I write, as late as the feast of St. Andrew, yet I have not yet heard a single street carol singer, though these little songsters are wont to warble from St. Luke’s little summer on. Neither has shopping set in, so far, with its customary rigour, and it is rumoured in commercial circles that it will be what they call a poor Christmas in the shops.

Can it be that our increasingly frequent visits abroad have infected us with something of the continental – at least of the French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese – spirit with regard to Christmas, and that our old English Yule is beginning to decay, to go the way of our old English Twelfth Night, May Day, St. John’s Eve, Lammas, Michaelmas, All Halloween, Sunday, and the rest of our ceremonial feasts? For this is the fate of feasts when they have been carried too far, farther, that is, than the spirit of a people will endure. The breaking-point comes.

But, for my part, I think it will be a pity. I like these exuberant seasonal feasts, and see no reason why we English should become like those Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Atheistical countries which pass Christmas day by, only giving it the tribute of a service or two in church in the morning, a carol or two in chapel at night. So I hope that the rumour is baseless, or that the revolt will come to no more than the other revolts of the last two thousand years.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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