, , , ,

Ah, it’s nearly Christmas. Ish. Well it’s not but the ads are out. So here’s a one-off return of the ‘Yule blog’…

Of all the starting-pistols of Christmas (Buble on in-store playlists, mince pies on shelves), the arrival of the John Lewis ad is probably the most recent. I mean, all of these are shop-based. Ever since Selfridge’s and Harrod’s raced each other to put the Christmas window displays up first, Christmas creep has been fully down to the department stores. We looked at the history behind some of this on this other previous Yule blog.

This year’s John Lewis ad once again has a delightful fictitious character in a snowy scene (despite the fact that it never snows at Christmas – you’re nearly more likely to get a White Easter). This time they’ve gone historical. It’s sweet, and it’s here…

As a self-professed historian of Christmas, a Santalogist, an Xmas Xpert, and a lover of traditions, this ad warms a few cockles. Firstly, the flames. Fire’s been part of winter festivals since long before Jesus – light of the world, heralded by a star amid darkness. Back in days of Norse Yule, wheels of fire would be rolled into the sea to show defiance of the sun’s apparent vanishing act. The Yule log would be burned (not eaten – it wasn’t a cake, thank you French people) and generally fire was blimin’ everywhere. So that flaming Christmas pudding? All down to that. And the very idea of fire amid frost, that this ad’s based on, goes right back to then.

The olde-wolde Dickensian(?) scene ticks another Christmas box (don’t get me started on Christmas boxes). Poverty and the noble celebration – that was what Christmas looked like through medieval days. The family part of it was more a Dickensian trope, and the gift-giving part – so crucial for a department store ad – has origins in St Nicholas, in nuns putting oranges in orphans’ socks, in the Magi bringing gifts, and in Roman New Year celebrations when gifts would be given up and down the social order (ie. for bosses, not for family). Christmas became a time for giving after the revival of St Nick/Sinterklaas/Santa in the early 19thcentury, thanks to American Santa savers like Washington Irving (who also gave us Gotham City and the word ‘knickers’).

The ice-skating part we can in part thank Prince Albert for – he helped popularise it by being so darn good at it. Snowmen of course back aeons, but the whole idea of the snowy Christmas is a bit Dickensian too – Charles Dickens’ first eight Christmases were white ones, so he wrote that into A Christmas Carol, despite releasing the book in one of the mildest Decembers on record. When his readers read of old snowy Christmases, it helped freeze this idea that an nostalgic Christmas is a white Christmas for all eternity. Like the ones we used to know…

But like Messrs Selfridge and Harrod, other shops have put their commercials out in the week before John Lewis. As soon as Halloween’s out of the way, it’s open season.

The Sainsbury’s ad has also gone Dickensian, and while it’s again nicely done, it slightly rankles with me as it tries to reinvent tradition. See it here…

Giving St Nick a new origin story? I can’t say I approve. I’d much rather a video that highlights the real St Nick, or at least his possibly-real legends. There’s so much to choose from! This guy lobbed pressies through an open window into fireside stockings, to help a widower and his three daughters! He restored cut-up children who’d been jarred and pickled by an evil innkeeper! St Nick as a baby even fasted from the boob two days a week, like a good priest-baby, and only took milk from the right breast, because he was so linked with God’s right hand. Slightly more believably, he punched a heretic at the Council of Nicaea, where they picked the date for Easter (that worked out well – when is it exactly?).

Lastly, seen the Robert Dyas ad? It’s bonkers. But funny. I think. Is it?

Either way I love how it just lets John Lewis and Sainsbury and M&S and Harrod’s do all the fancy-pants adverts with a budget and a snowy set, and instead just gets some store employees to badly deliver a right-on message. Because nothing says 2019 Christmas like trying to be politically correct. So I’d like to wish a very Happy Non-Sectarian Festive Ad Watch to all my readers, regardless of race, gender, sexuality and whatever shop you shop in.

Paul Kerensa’s book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available from all good bookshops, many bad ones, and after Paul’s gigs.