Posted by: Catherine Weston | November 22, 2012

Yuletide, Dickens and all that

Another Christmas themed catalogue plopped through the letterbox this morning.  A reminder, if I needed it, that the most important British festival of the year is fast approaching.

Years ago a Syrian student plied me with questions about Christmas.  Not the birth of Jesus you understand, but all the other things that happen in Britain during this season of good cheer. Until I started meeting international students and saw my own culture through their eyes, I had never really thought about a lot of things I took for granted. So when Hakan asked his questions – “Why do you decorate your home like this?  Why do you eat this kind of food?  Why do you give presents?” – I was forced to reply, rather lamely, “It’s traditional”.

Why is Christmas known as the season of good cheer anyway?  Is that from the Bible, or is there something else at work here? So, prompted by Hakan’s questions, I began a personal journey exploring the origins of our Christmas customs in Britain. I discovered along the way that Charles Dickens has a lot to answer for.

What are the things I do at Christmas because I am British and what do I do because I am a Christian? To help work this out, you might like to try the following exercise:

Write down everything you associate with the word ‘Christmas’ both positive and negative.  Think of each of the five senses and the emotional impact as you compile your list.  You can do this wherever in the world you normally celebrate Christmas (assuming that you do!)

My list would include the following: Advance negotiations with extended family as to who visits whom and when.  Writing lists – shopping, ‘To Do’, cards to send. The smell of cinnamon, cloves and citrus. Dr Who & the Queen on TV. The combined tastes of roast turkey and bread sauce. Yards of gift-wrap. Getting the Christmas letter written in time (sweat!). Bumper copies of Radio Times with all the good films marked for recording. Snow (or, more commonly, lack of it.) Making dozens of mince pies with carols playing in the background…

When you’ve finished your list (and mine would be a lot longer than that) then you have to cross off all the things that are not directly associated with the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus and see what’s left. My list would reduce dramatically from around 100 items to about 6.

This exercise has freed me from feeling I have to do something just because it is expected.  I choose to decorate a tree, wrap presents artistically and spend time cooking or sending cards to my friends because it’s a time of celebration.  The way I celebrate has its roots in British geography, climate and history – and that’s ok, because that’s where I’m from.  But the most important thing is that I have a reason to celebrate. His name is Emmanuel.

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Responses

  1. Nice article! For your interest, evangelical Christians in Italy mostly do NOT celebrate Christmas (most evangelical churches in Italy will be shut on Christmas day!). I guess as a reaction to the fact that Jesus was most probably NOT born on 25 December and that, as you write, many of the things that revolve around Christmas have nothing do with him. Also partly as a reaction to the Catholic majority culture which at Christmas time makes a nativity set, with a cute baby Jesus (and that’s how they see Jesus for the rest of the year, a harmless, gentle, little person….) I have to say that this has been a bit of a culture shock when I went back to Italy! I personally do feel that Christmas can be used as a great opportunity to talk about Jesus, especially why he came. And I’ll try and do it again this Christmas! 🙂

  2. I do a talk at my language school every year on “Christmas in the UK”. I try to explain the Christian origin of Christmas and also the pagan festival that it was grafted onto. I also discuss what Christmas means to most non-religious British people, and what it means to Christians.

    Surprisingly, preparing this talk helped me to see that there was a logic behind why the early Christian church chose to celebrate Christmas on 25th December. The festival of sun-return was a celebration of the days beginning to get longer, after mid-winter’s day on 21st December. It’s about light coming back to a world in darkness. It’s about the promise that new life will come, even if it doesn’t look like it at the moment. Christmas is also about light coming to a world in darkness, and about the promise of salvation, even though at this point in the story it’s not yet clear exactly how that salvation will be achieved.

    I’m still not sure what I think about the wisdom of amalgamating pagan and Christian festivals, but it provides an interesting starting point for discussion if people try to argue that December 25th is a totally arbitrary date and that there’s no reason to celebrate Jesus’ birth then anyway.

  3. Thanks you, Mrs. Weston. It really takes us back to the real meaning of Christmas. In Ukraine there is so much more added to all those traditions from pagan customs! But i constantly remind myself about the One whose brithday, moreover – Incarnation I celebrate!

  4. […] wrote along similar lines this time last year, though in a less ‘academic’ […]


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