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20 December 1999updated 09 Sep 2021 8:34am

Christmas turned upside down

New Statesman Christmas - Our season of gluttony should be preceded, not followed, by fasti

By Melanie McDonagh

We’ve got Christmas the wrong way round, you know. I don’t mean the usual complaint about it being so tragically commercialised. That is true, of course, and as a vocational shopper I play my little part in the prostitution of the spirit of Christmas by consumer spending. What I have in mind is how Christmas is getting earlier and earlier. It’s not just that it starts too soon – the festive season stops just as it should be starting. The Christian Christmas coincides with everyone else’s Christmas for perhaps three whole days – 24, 25 and 26 December. Apart from that, the secular Christmas turns the Christian Christmas on its head, feeds off it and subverts it.

In the world we inhabit, which is governed by the retail sector, Christmas starts around the end of October. By then, there are Christmas trees in Knightsbridge and your local BHS is sticking up festive placards about Christmas being a time for giving. From November, we’re talking Christmas carols on the telephone when you’re put on hold, the first turkey dinners at restaurants catering for office parties and features in women’s magazines about how to get your snog under the mistletoe. By the beginning of December, we’re in celebration mode. By Christmas week, the more enterprising shops in Regent Street have actually started their sales. On Christmas Eve, we go home to mother, eat our umpteenth Christmas pudding on Christmas Day, pig out on Boxing Day on the remains and, by 27 December, we’ve started to talk about diet and exercise. The party season gets one last fling on New Year’s Eve, and that’s it; over until the following year.

This is almost exactly the reverse of the Christian calendar, which starts with Advent, roughly four weeks before Christmas. Advent is preparation time, notionally a time for fasting and abstinence and prayer, just like Lent.

Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, only kicks off on Christmas Eve. And then it goes on until the Epiphany, when we celebrate the Three Kings, or Wise Men, paying homage to the infant, on the sixth of January. The Twelve Days of Christmas mean just that: you start off on Christmas Day, and you end up with the great feast of Twelfth Night. In between, you really go for it, feast-wise.

In other words, the secular calendar makes us feast when we should be fasting, and fast when we should be feasting. The abolition of Advent has changed the entire character of Christmas.

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When I was a child in Ireland, we used to give things up for Christmas – those lines from the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, about the “black and sugarless tea of Advent” are simply unintelligible to us now. Yet the psychology of the season makes sense – psychically it is better for us to fast and then feast, to anticipate a climax and work up to a treat, rather than our present practice of pigging out and then going in for guilt and abstinence.

It sounds shriekingly fogeyish to say it, but Christmas carols are meant for Christmas. During Advent you have specific carols for that very season, about the Angel Gabriel and Mary, that kind of thing. That is why punters get all cross when they go to traditional Advent carol services in Oxford and Cambridge chapels and find they don’t get a chance to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. The time for that is when the angels are meant to be at it, when Christ is born. It’s subverting the whole exercise, to exhort “O Come All Ye Faithful” before the time comes. By celebrating too soon, we make the actual celebrations seem like an anticlimax.

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But what happens in the Christmas season proper is even worse. You don’t expect people to celebrate, do you, after 26 December, St Stephen’s Day? They’ve done that; they’ve had it with bloody Christmas, and the festive food and the crackers, because they’ve been at it since November. There is the New Year blip, but no one celebrates Twelfth Night, when Christmas used to reach a second climax, at the close of the season – that’s why you had plays and masques written by Shakespeare and co for that very night.

It was an extraordinary celebration, the Feast of Fools, when the world was turned upside-down. During the Middle Ages, you had celebrations like that of the boy bishop, when a child was made to rule for the night, and the hierarchy of things was subverted. In Ireland, the Epiphany was called the Women’s Christmas, because that was the night when the women celebrated the season together – they didn’t do any work; the men did it.

The abolition of Advent and, indeed, the Christmas season is part of the process whereby the secular calendar is flattened out. The year used to echo the Christian calendar – it peaked at the great feasts, such as Easter and Christmas. These happened at awkward times, on days that weren’t designed for the convenience of shops and employers. The idiosyncrasy of the calendar was shared by unbelievers as well as Christians – people in Ireland who never go to Mass get a kick out of St Patrick’s Day, and Germans who have opted out of religion rather enjoy the celebrations you get for the Assumption. Such feasts give a shape to the year; they’re a reminder of where we came from. But it’s one thing for celebrations to fall out of fashion – like the bonfires you used to get on the Nativity of St John the Baptist for the summer solstice – it’s quite another for the secular calendar actually to undermine the Christian one, as it does when we finish celebrating Christmas just when it should be beginning.

Let’s change. We may not be up to abstinence during the party season, but we could at least celebrate Twelfth Night. The Feast of Fools has a curiously contemporary ring to it.