The real meaning of Christmas

By John Kirkbride for The Tameside Correspondent

IT seems to me, and quite a lot of other people I suspect, that Christmas is gradually losing its magic.

Admittedly, some of the blame for that can be attributed to becoming an adult. When you’re 45 as opposed to seven, the prospect of getting up at 6am to rummage through a pillowcase seems less appealing somehow.

And yet, Christmas isn’t much different now to the way it was when I was seven (although I drank less Glenfiddich back then).

It’s still about the giving of gifts, families coming together to celebrate and strangers on the street swapping festive greetings. All right, I know, it depends on the street, but you get my drift.

So why do I still feel that Christmas has lost some of its shine?
Having thought long and hard about this over the last five minutes, I believe I’ve come up with an explanation. It’s because I’ve turned into a miserable old grinch. (I’m kidding, I think).

Actually, it’s because Christmas has now become a brand, and in the 21st century is more like a global conglomerate than a celebration of someone’s birth.

It’s been an industry for a long time, of course, but more recently profit, commercialism and blanket media coverage have turned it into a juggernaught. (And it’s notable that one of the best known Christmas adverts features one).

Sadly it was inevitable this would happen. Let’s face it, we’re not called consumers for nothing, and manufacturers know full well that if they make something shiny and tell us we need it, we’ll be tapping our phones before the advert even finishes.

Toymakers want to sell us toys, supermarkets want to sell us festive food and Amazon wants to sell us everything that ever existed. And who can blame them? It’s called free-market capitalism.

But this exponential escalation of marketing-driven consumerism (try saying that after a glass of mulled wine) has led us to lose sight of what Christmas is really about. That’s the point I’m trying to make, and I can’t believe its taken me so many words to get here.

You see, we’ve forgotten the original message. We’ve forgotten about affection, kindness and goodwill. We’ve forgotten that a picture made with holiday pebbles is worth so much more than a pair of Louboutin shoes. Because giving is about the love, and not about the cost.

So how do we put the juggernaught in reverse and make our way back to the real meaning of Christmas? Well, maybe we should take a closer look at what that ‘real meaning’ originally was.

Christmas: a brief history

The truth is, folks have been whooping it up around Christmas time for thousands of years, and long before Jesus entered the frame. For some people the winter solstice was a time to rejoice in the coming of longer days, warmer weather and the return of Judith Chalmers.

For others it was an excuse to drink all the wine and beer that had been fermenting since late summer. Either way, it was a time of celebration, hope, goodwill and getting mashed.

For early Christians, Easter was always the main event, and if creme eggs had been around back then they’d probably have left things the way they were. But in the fourth century religious chiefs decided to move the big holiday to coincide with the date that Jesus was born.

The fact the Bible doesn’t actually mention his date of birth didn’t appear to faze them. Pope Julius I went ahead and chose December 25, probably because pagans were already painting the town red over the winter solstice, and he figured they might as well make it official.

Originally called the Feast of Nativity, by the end of the six century it had spread all the way to England. Not unlike pizza, really. By the Middle Ages, when pagan religions had mostly given way to Christianity, Christmas was by all accounts a pretty rowdy affair.

It was off to church, then straight to the tavern to get drunk as skunks and throw an impromptu carnival in the street. With no police force to keep an eye on things, it must have been a bit like Whit Friday in the 70s.

When Oliver Cromwell and his party-poopers took over the reigns in 1645, Christmas was cancelled as part of the drive to make England a more devout (not to mention dull and miserable) place.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, so was Christmas. But it would be almost 160 years before the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas began to gain a foothold in the public consciousness.
Attitudes change

The truth is, the poor and disadvantaged have suffered throughout history, and still do, of course. But in the early 1800s, as the gaping chasm between the privileged and the deprived grew ever wider, there was a gradual shift in attitude.

True, many wealthy people simply turned their backs and poured themselves another glass of obscenely expensive champagne. But thankfully, others began to realise that enough was enough.

In 1819, American author Washington Irving published a book of stories about Christmas in an English manor house. It was clearly the product of a vivid imagination, as it featured a squire inviting peasants into his home to celebrate Christmas with his family.

But while it may have been complete fantasy, the timing was obviously perfect, because the concept seemed to capture the public imagination. And this could well be the point at which the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas was born.

Other stories followed, one of the most notable being Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and it wasn’t long before family, forgiveness, goodwill and generosity became the driving forces of the festive season.

As time went on, people even began to behave as if this had been the case for hundreds of years.
But the fact is, the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas was essentially conceived in the 1800s, simply because it was the right moment in history for it to happen. Not unlike pizza, really.

It may not be ‘real’, but it’s right

So does it matter that the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas is a 19th century invention? Shouldn’t we be thinking about God and Jesus and the three wise men?

The way I see it, if you live according to a faith, Christmas is yours to enjoy in any way you wish.

But if you’re of a more secular frame of mind, the fact that our current Christmas tradition evolved less than 200 years ago is irrelevant.

Every tradition has to start somewhere, and if it’s a good and valuable tradition, it should be upheld with as much vigour as we can muster.

The irony is, we should all try our best to be kind, caring, considerate and generous all year round, but if it takes the coming of Christmas to remind us, that has to be better than forgetting altogether.

So while giving is part of Christmas, don’t be misled into thinking an expensive present is a better present (unless it’s a red Ferrari with a crate of whisky in the boot, obviously).

If you give a gift that you’ve made yourself, you’ve also given your time and your love, and there’s nothing more precious than that.

So let’s celebrate the promise of spring by appreciating family and friends and spreading as much joy as we possibly can.

Spare a thought for those less fortunate, and offer assistance if you’re able to. And above all, be kind.

Oh, and if you’re having Christmas pud with flaming brandy on the big day, try not to set fire to the curtains.

Some favourite festive thoughts

“Nothing ever seems too bad, too hard, or too sad when you’ve got a Christmas tree in the living room.” (Nora Roberts)

“Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” (Alexander Smith)

“Probably the reason we all go so haywire at Christmas time with the endless unrestrained and often silly buying of gifts is that we don’t quite know how to put our love into words.” (Harlan Miller)

“A week? You’re kidding! Where’s the nearest petrol station?” (John Kirkbride)

“May you never be too grown up to search the skies on Christmas Eve.” (Anonymous)

“Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it white.” (Bing Crosby)

“The world has grown weary through the years, but at Christmas, it is young.” (Phillips Brookes)

“If my Valentine you won’t be, I’ll hang myself on your Christmas tree.” (Ernest Hemingway)

“Remember this December, that love weighs more than gold.” (Josephine Daskam Bacon)

“At Christmas, all roads lead home.” (Marjorie Holmes)

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