A Curious History of Christmas in Great Britain

Not so long ago, Catholics kept the Christmas season until the feast of Candlemas. Now, for some, it seems even 12 days is too long.

The title page of the first edition (1843) of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Illustrations by John Leech.
The title page of the first edition (1843) of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Illustrations by John Leech. (photo: Register Files)

Today in Britain, Christmas is the pre-eminent holiday.

There is no other Christian or secular feast that attracts so much attention — or for that matter, so much hype. If proof were needed, the first Christmas items for sale started to surface in London stores back in September.

This wasn’t always the case. Christmas Day became an official holiday in Scotland, for example, only in 1958. For a period of time, Christmas was officially banned throughout the British Isles. The history of the celebration of Christmas tells us much about the state of the British soul.

The earliest known evidence of Christmas as a liturgical celebration occurs in the Pontificate of Julius I (337-352). He decreed that Dec. 25 was to be observed as the feast of the Nativity of the Lord.

Centuries later, the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century English monk, wrote about the period of ‘Yule.’ This was an ancient, possibly Norse, word for the months of December and January. It is from this we get the word: ‘Yuletide.’ From 1038, however, the word ‘Cristes Maesse’ appears – ‘Christ’s Mass’ – and as with the religion of the British, this new Christian phrase soon replaces the pagan one.

By the 12th century, there is record of English churches acting out an Epiphany play. By the mid-13th century, from the time of St. Francis, the crib was in evidence. Also, by that time, for the royal court and the nobility, the feasting around Christmas had become elaborate. So much so that King Edward III (1327-1377) passed laws restricting the number of dishes at several of the meal times such was the extravagance of some during the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.

Just before the Reformation, each parish in England had a great pole that was decorated at Christmastime with holly and ivy. During the spring, it was that same pole that would serve as a May Pole. Soon this ‘tree’ was to be cut down by the official Protestant frenzy that had descended on England. By the end of the 16th century, as Calvinism in particular spread throughout the British Isles, many Christmas customs were suppressed, judged as too ‘Papist.’ The nadir of this type of attitude came under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Like many of his fellow Puritans, Cromwell viewed Christmas as emanating from the ‘Rome of the Anti-Christ.’ In 1643, at his command, the English Parliament was convened on Christmas Day, a signal to all that this was no holiday and was not to be observed as such. The next year, Dec. 25 was designated a ‘fast day’ with Parliamentarians obliged to endure long sermons about ‘fasting and humiliation.’ In the land known as Mary’s Dowry, Cromwellian town criers went through the streets proclaiming: 'No Christmas today!' Cromwell’s ban on Christmas would appear to have been little heeded by the masses though as that same year those in power had to issue an official decree stating that: “Festival Days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.” It was also during this period, in 1640, that the Scottish Parliament abolished Christmas “and all observation thereof in time coming." Doubtless, King Herod would have approved.

Mercifully, Cromwell’s miserable dictatorship did not last. Neither did his ban on Christmas, thanks to the return of the Stuarts. That said, the Puritanism of Cromwell and others still ruled parts of the Britain for some time. Hence there was no official holiday at Christmas in Scotland for centuries to come, despite the fact that many Irish Catholics were living in Scotland from the mid-19th century onwards.

Slowly, however, in England at least, aspects of the earlier boisterous Christmas festivities began to re-emerge. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that this took some of the forms that we recognize today. Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert, is credited with bringing the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree to these shores. Around the same time, the 1843 publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol further articulated a conception of what Christmas was meant to look, sound and taste like. Dickens’s story may appear quaintly Victorian today, but then it moved the Christmas holiday into the ‘now’, set in contemporary London, as it was, and in a lower middle class world as opposed to an aristocratic one. At Christmas, it was permissible for the lower classes to feast, too, is clearly the message. And these Christmas revelries included turkey (or, alternatively, goose), playing parlor games, giving presents, drinking and all-around jollity. For the emerging middle classes, it was this merrymaking that in time became the new ‘Christmas.’

And, to this day, this remains largely the case. But, as the years have progressed, the celebration has become greater than the commemoration. Today, the commercialism of Christmas has long since eclipsed its religious significance. This latter grows fainter with each passing year. The fact that most of Britain is secular, with a sizable proportion of the population coming from non-Christian backgrounds, means that the return of Christmas to some semblance of a national essentially Christian feast day is unlikely to occur any time soon.

Nevertheless, throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, Christmas is still a time for festivity, even if no one is really sure what is being celebrated. It is still a time for school nativity plays in places of education. In these places of learning where the message of Christ is shunned, myriad photographs are uploaded of children dressed as shepherds and angels — though few present appear to know why they are so dressed. Christmas is still a time to give presents, if only because everyone is doing so, and the advertising campaigns have been telling us to do so for months. There is no sense of those original gifts, carried long distances by Wise Men, or the act of faith they made as they did so before they arrived at the door of what appeared an insignificant family.

No, in the United Kingdom of 21st century, few fail to celebrate Christmas, but, likewise, the many who do celebrate would struggle to articulate why they are so doing.

In British history, Christmas became a national celebration when Christianity became the cornerstone of society. It was a later ‘reformed’ version of this religion that tried to obliterate the feast. Its religious prominence has been weakened further by secularism in the centuries that followed. Christmas is now obscured by the commercialism that surrounds it, to the extent that its true meaning is hardly perceptible to the collective consciousness. Today it would seem that throughout British cities, towns and villages a counterfeit ‘Christmas’ is at large each Dec. 25.

One of the saddest sights is to be had while walking the streets of London on or around Dec. 27. It is then one sees the not inconsiderable number of Christmas trees discarded onto the streets for the rubbish collection. Not so long ago, Catholics kept the Christmas season until the feast of Candlemas. Now, for some, it seems even 12 days is too long.