Alrighty, I’m writing this on a sweltering August Bank Holiday… but I’ve got a Christmas book to put out there next month! Needs must. (It is, have I not mentioned, called ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas, and incredibly pre-orderable by clicking here.)
So please forgive while I start to veer towards that festival at the end of the year. You know the one. Crimbo. Xmas. Yule. Saturnalia. Winterval. I’ve already heard some vicars call it ‘the C word’, which hardly seems fair. I guess they get busy.
But we won’t get too snowy just yet. Plenty of time for that when the wind changes.
Instead, a light introduction to the chapters of the book. Each details what I’ve conveniently decreed the 12 dates when Christmas became our current Christmas. So here, exclusively (if that’s what passes for an exclusive nowadays), are the 12 dates ‘n’ chapters…
(Prologue: It’s Norse Yule and quite Games of Thronesy. It’s a story of ice and fire. And winter is definitely coming. There are no dragons but there is a burning log. (Oh, and it’s not so much ‘prologue’ as ‘prologos’, ‘before the Word’ or ‘before Christ’ as the Greeks would call it. Too early for ancient Greek wordplay?)
On my 1st date of Christmas, it’s approx May 20th, 4BC. Jesus is born. In May? Well, shepherds wouldn’t be watching many flocks by night in December. We take a look at all the key players: Mary, the shepherds, the angels, the many-not-three wise men, the non-innkeeper, the non-donkey and King Herod and his wife Doris.
My 2nd date of Christmas is December 17th, 33AD. Saturnalia! Roman festival of gift-giving, turning the world on its head, and general outrageous partying: ancestor of the office shindig. It’s 33AD because post-Christ, Jesus’ followers’ movement muddled in with other Roman religions, from Judaism to Mithraism. Emperor Constantine chose Christianity, and the rest is history. Oh, and at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine met one Bishop Nicholas, so that brings us to our…
3rd date of Christmas: December 6th 343, deathday of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. He gave out goodies, especially getting 3 bags of gold into 3 stockings by a fireplace (in another life, he’d make a mean NBA basketball player). And he lived in a town called Myra, named after myrrh. In Turkey, which sounds like turkey. You see?! St Nicholas is Christmassier than you thought, even before he becomes Santa Claus (spoiler).
Our 4th date is our first December 25th, in 1213. We zoom in on King John’s epic Christmas feast, including 16,000 hens and 10,000 eels. The medieval Christmas feast ties the season to gorging on birds from crane (chewy) to peacock (pretty but tough) to, oh yes, turkey. Later, even KFC, the Japanese Christmas tradition since the 1970s.
Our 5th date is a day short of a decade later: Christmas Eve, 1223. Francis of Assisi stages the first live Nativity scene, with genuine animals and a stone Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Soon, every fashionable home in Europe has their own crib scene. Meanwhile Francis is busy writing the first carols to be sung not in Latin but local languages – so people finally understand what they’re singing.
Chapter 6 zooms in on Christmas 1643 and those just after – or as Puritans preferred to call it, ‘The old Heathens’ Feasting Day, the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…’ – that’s fasting not feasting, folks. Christmas is cancelled. Father Christmas is recruited as a political activist, mince pies became round to get around the law, and ‘the Christmas hoop’ loses the holy family icons, to leave simply mistletoe. Then there’s plum pudding, panto and candy canes – but Christmas is out of fashion. Did the Puritans win?
Our 7th date is one of my favourites. The Silent Night: December 24th, 1818. Some hungry mice, a church organ, a forgotten poem and a few panicked hours on Christmas Eve help create the world’s most performed Christmas song. Plus how Handel’s Messiah was written for Easter, how Jingle Bells was written for Thanksgiving (and became the first song in space, as part of a prank), and why While Shepherds Watched was the only legal carol for a hundred years.
Just four years later, in Chapter 8… now we’re talking. It’s December 23rd 1822 and Dr Clement Clarke Moore has written a poem, absorbing tales from Dutch New Yorkers about their favourite saint, Nicholas. Washington Irving (writer of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow and inventor of the words ‘knickers’ and ‘Gotham City’), has brought St Nick into popular fiction. Moore runs with it: “Twas the Night before Christmas…”
December 19th, 1843: a biggie. Dickens stepped out of his home to see street-sellers launch his tale of Scrooge, charity, family, mulled wine and humbugs. The same week, the first Christmas card appeared. The same year, O Come All Ye Faithful appeared. The same decade, Christmas trees and crackers appeared (with sweets in). The new middle classes meant aspiration. The new railways meant far-away work, which meant returning home for Christmas. The new postal system meant cards and parcels and thankyou letters.
Our 10th date is December 24th, 1880 in Truro, Cornwall, as the first Nine Lessons & Carols service lures drinkers out of pubs. Commerce sees window displays, grottos, and a telephonist’s light-up desk inspires coloured Christmas lights. There’s a Christmas truce, a kickabout, and a grumpy corporal Adolf Hitler refusing to join in.
Date 11 is Christmas Day 1932: the first British royal Christmas speech. We’ve a stockingful of early broadcasting joy, from the world’s first ever radio entertainment show (being One Lesson & Carol) to the bumper Radio Times and the Queen’s first TV Christmas message, which was rudely interrupted by a cross line from a police radio, saying: “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”
Finally, our 12th date is Christmas Day 1941, as Bing Crosby debuts White Christmas just days after Pearl Harbor. There are the strange summer origins of Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and The Christmas Song. There’s John McClane. There’s a film of a Yule log that repeats every 17 seconds. There’s Alan Partridge in a Christmas jumper. There’s the unwatchable Star Wars Holiday Special. There’s Bob Geldof bumping into Gary Kemp outside of an antiques shop and starting Band Aid.
Then there’s today – somehow the summation of all this. Well, I say ‘today’. Today it’s a sweltering August Bank Holiday Monday. So enough about Christmas. For now…