Customs change to suit the times, and Christmas observance is no exception. It’s difficult to imagine now, but Christmas almost died out. Twice.
First Cromwell’s Puritans banned it. Then, between 1790 and 1840, rapid industrialisation ruined Christmas as employers slashed the Christmas holidays. The customary twelve days became a single day, December 25.
Novelists and journalists reacted by looking to traditional festivities to revive what they saw as society’s old order and harmony. At the same time the growing middle class, fearing a rift between rich and poor, was yearning for a safer society. A Christmas festival that could combine piety, charity and family appealed to everyone.
There was also a new spirit in the Church of England, where The Oxford Movement was championing ritual and the old holy days. In 1871 came the publication of Christmas Carols Old and New – most were new or rewritten – and in 1880 Edward Benson devised the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that has become a cherished feature of our Christmas Eve.
Then came two pivotal events. In 1841, an image was published showing the Royal family gathered around a Christmas tree, and in 1843 came the publication of A Christmas Carol, which presented Christmas as an antidote to greed and selfishness.
Now the nation was in the mood for a revived festival. Protestant sects that had rejected Christmas as a holy day finally accepted it. Christmas dinner was introduced to workhouses in 1847, and to prisons in the 1860s. In 1871, Boxing Day was declared a day of leisure, and during the next 100 years the remodelled festival became unstoppable.
It’s often said that Christmas has become divorced from its religious origin, but this has been a problem from the start. In the fourth century, church leaders had to remind their flocks to celebrate the feast in a heavenly manner, rather than dancing, eating and drinking too much. Everything changes – except human nature.
Even in this noisy world, it’s possible to find stillness as midnight approaches on Christmas Eve. This is the time to hear angels, if you dare; to enjoy their celestial harmonies you must sit under a pine tree at midnight.
According to folklore, a lot is going on in this magical time between days. Cockerels are crowing, including the metal ones on weathervanes. Bees in their hives hum psalm 100. Cattle kneel, bowing toward the east as their ancestors did at the birth of the Holy Child. For a few precious moments all animals have the power of speech, but be warned –eavesdropping brings bad luck to the listener.
While animals rejoice, a jolly fat elf enters our home by way of the chimney. As his reindeer wait patiently on the roof, Santa enjoys a drink and mince pie, because it’s prudent to reward helpful elves or brownies.
Today our pets get presents too, little stockings filled with toys and treats. Some might think this silly, yet farm animals used to receive special rations on Christmas Eve. Perhaps some still do.
There’ll be no snow on the 25th but there will be a full moon, the first on Christmas Day since 1977. We won’t see another until 2034 so let’s hope the sky will be free of clouds.