If Halloween’s behind us, it must mean we’re into the holiday season. Alright, our Atlantically-distanced cousins mark it from Thanksgiving, but come on: Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving… whatever side of the pond you’re on, it’s one festivity after another this time of year. Like the lorry of sugary black stuff tells us, holidays are indeed coming. Happy holidays, everybody!
Oh, hasn’t that term always bristled? Doesn’t it smack of Christmas-bashing? Of secular season’s greetings and watered-down Wintervals? But here am I – English, God-fearing, Christmas-loving chump that I am – to say that I think I’m happy with ‘holidays’. Happy, if not merry.
Till I researched my Christmas history book, I hadn’t fully appreciated the history of the U.S. holiday season. I knew that Cromwell banned Christmas over here in Blightyland in the 1640s, causing a good decade and a half of no legal Christmas in Britain. But I’d not realised the impact in America.
The Puritan Pilgrim Fathers banned Christmas in Boston a few decades later, and unlike in Britain, they didn’t have centuries of Christmas to build on (or knock down). They were banning something that had never had a footfall in the New World, so as a religious festival it never hugely came back, because it was never hugely there. Christmas was celebrated in pockets along the East Coast in the 17th and 18th century, but churches couldn’t agree: Was it a feast day? A fast day? A normal day? Christmas became an excuse for a riotous party, or just a riot.
Scotland had done a similar thing – with no official Christmas holiday from 1560 right up till 1958. That left a gap, so Scotland gained Hogmanay, while North America gained Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was celebrated as early as the American Christmas, with new (and hungry) pilgrims grateful for the harvest. Britain had its Harvest Festival, but things grew bigger in the New World – even festivals. It took till 1789 to become official under George Washington, marking the proper start of the ‘holiday season’, which now covers the Christian Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah, and the African American Kwanzaa. So it makes total sense to be called a holiday season, given the holidays it covers include things like Thanksgiving, that had a foothold before Christmas fully did.
For Thanksgiving to go national as an actual day off, thank nineteenth century magazine editor Sarah Hale: a very creative, innovative and can-do American businesswoman. She wrote to each U.S. President over 26 years suggesting an official Thanksgiving Day (Lincoln finally relented), and also first published ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ plus stories by Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe in her mag. Oh, and she also printed something else for our Christmas tale: the American reprint of the famous ‘Victoria and Albert and family around a giant German Christmas tree’ picture, which went viral and pretty much created an industry.
To appeal to the American market, Hale’s version of the picture used one of the earliest examples of journalistic airbrushing, removing Victoria’s crown (to make her less royal) and Albert’s moustache (to make him less German). Spot the difference in the above pics, UK vs US… However anti-royalist and xenophobic it sounds, good ol’ Sarah Hale sold the Christmas tree to America – so give thanks to her for a couple of ‘holiday’ customs.
If ‘holiday’ is still sounding anti-religious, it’s worth remembering the word’s religious in origin in any case, being Old English for ‘holy day’. And in fact a century or two ago, ‘Happy holidays’ could have easily meant a Christian greeting to cover Advent, Christmas and New Year into Epiphany… as well as those other non-Christian festivals too.
So I have no problem with ‘the holiday season’. It’s a season of holidays. As for ‘Happy Holidays’… well the backlash against that is perhaps more valid, and more recent. It’s a greeting used at Christmas, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. I see the point though. What if you’re wishing someone a Merry Christmas, and they’re Jewish, and Hannukah is their thing? Don’t you want to wish them a merry one of those? So Christmas shopping might be labelled ‘holiday shopping’. Perhaps it rankles to the British ear because holidays, for us, are what they call vacations, and are normally summery and as far from Christmas as possible. So is it a language thing then, or a multi-religious thing?
Maybe it’s more that in the U.S., when they say ‘Christmas’ they more often mean the religious Christmas – so when their festive season becomes more multicultural, they pick a new term that’s less religious. Over on our sceptred isle, we’ve been watering down our religion for some time, merrily ticking census boxes that claim us as Christian when really we mean we like the morals we learnt in R.E. forty years ago, and we sing along to Last Night of the Proms. If we’re happy to be labelled Christian without going to church, we’re also happy to label Christmas as ‘Christmas’ when actually we’re no longer celebrating Christ’s mass.
Either way, whether you’re enjoying Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Guy Fawkes Night or even Christmas, I know it’s too early and too annoying to wish you Happy Holidays. So I’ll just wish instead it to be as fun a holiday season as King Edward III had in 1348, when he spent Halloween to Candlemas (a.k.a. All Saints Eve to Groundhog Day) – three full months – on a masked animal-skin party in Guildford. I live in Guildford, and can report, it hasn’t changed a bit.
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…
Oh my, it’s been while since I blogged here.
Two and a half years since I posted here about the end of Miranda and Not Going Out – so what’s happened since?
Well Not Going Out has come back, in a new scenario. We’re writing the umpteenth series of it now. As for Miranda, there are rumours in the paper every few weeks that it’s coming back, every time one of the cast breathes and it sounds a bit like ‘We’re in talks’. Who can say…
As for me, I’ve been gigging a-plenty (including a new medically biographical stand-up show I’m performing at Camden Fringe this weekend as I write this – tickets available folks! Come on down, Sat 26th/Sun 27th Aug 2017…).
And I’ve been writing for more TV, including TFI Friday, Buble at the BBC, The BBC Music Awards, and a rollercoaster series of Top Gear: a crazy five months under the spotlight of the tabloids, culminating in everyone on the bus voicing opinions on the precise ideal volume of Chris Evans’ voice/T-shirt. I arrived with Chris and left with him. Amazingly, given the press interest at the time (even making the front pages, as well as countless Murdoch media grumblepieces), I’ve not had one journo get in touch asking for my experience on it. They were delightfully printing how “an unnamed source told us Presenter #1 shouted at people in this meeting” and “another unnamed source told us Presenter #2 doesn’t share food and his favourite food is sandwiches”. I’m astounded that no one’s even bothered to get in touch to ask if any of it was true. Then again, who needs truth once the article’s out?
Ah, speaking of articles, that’s why I’m here.
Another thing I’ve been doing is writing a Christmas book. For a couple of years now, I’ve been researching and writing Hark! The Biography of Christmas – you can of course pre-order it by clicking on its title just there in the line above. Would you? Thanks.
It’s simply the history of Christmas, told via the 12 dates of when I think Christmas became a bit more like our modern version of it. The whole of Christmas is here: origins of crackers, tinsel, turkey, holly, White Christmas, panto, Scrooge, Santa, carols… Why we think of our Christmas as a snowy time (it’s to do with the ice age, the young Dickens and Frankenstein), a time for charity (it’s to do with Boxing Day, the older Dickens and Cornish tin mines), and a time for family (it’s to do with trains, Gotham City, and the word ‘knickers’). There is of course plenty of church (a Nativity with no donkey, no innkeeper and possible dozens of wise men) and plenty of commerce (the world’s first Santa’s grotto? East London). There’s even a farting jester, The Simpsons, Daphne Du Maurier’s scary dad, and Englebert Humperdinck (not that one).
In fact I don’t think there’s anything of Christmas I’ve left out. I’m waiting for someone to read it and tell me what’s missing.
The book’s out mid-September, but as I say, very much pre-orderable now. I’m having two (I know, greedy) book launches – in Guildford on Sun 1st Oct and Holborn, London on Wed 11th Oct. If you’d like to come to either, email this special email address for details to get on the list – it’s free but ticketed, and both will include festive nibbles and a whistlestop tour through Christmas history from yours truly. Oh, and book signings galore of course. “Perfect stocking-filler!” Not my words – the words of Miranda Hart.
The reason I’ve resurrected this blog…
To drip-feed Christmassy articles/extracts between now and Christmas. Festive delights a-plenty will follow in subsequent posts. For now, it’s still August, so I’ll have some respect for the season and not start till September. But come September 1st, the festive floodgates will open… and the blog’s going to be the Christmassiest place on the planet.
Hey Christians! Do you rhyme things? Do you write worship songs? If yes to both, then this article isn’t aimed at you. This is for the rhymers who aren’t full-timers. The amateur iambicquers. The poets who just won’t forego it.
Songwriters are allowed to rhyme. The Poet Laureate is allowed to rhyme. But outside of these spheres, the composition of natty slogans by matching a couple of syllables together does rankle somewhat, does it not.
Follow some of the Twitter faith-minded, and you might see the odd ode masquerading as a handy soundbite:
@preachynteachy1982 Just prayin’ #justsayin
@yawnagainchristian73 At a loss? Look to the boss on the cross
@revtrev64 Convertin’ the hurtin’. Am grateful not hateful. #youjustheardtheword
Don’t get me wrong. I love a ‘rap’ as much as the next chap. Sometimes in the realm of Marketing, a convenient soundalike can be helpful. But just remember it is Marketing speak. So yes, you might feel well smug that you’ve just summed up your entire theology/philosophy/raison d’etre in three bitesized words that roll off the tongue like water off a quack-hack’s back. Comic Relief have just been delivering ‘Funny For Money’ – that works, but again, it is marketing. And sometimes things that rhyme aren’t that simple. By its very nature, the rhyme reduces the idea, often to comic effect, as with comedic character L Vaughan Spencer’s “Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy” mantra.
I’m sure no Londoner can forget Philip Howard, the Scouse preacher that used to occupy the corner of Oxford Circus with his mini-megaphone. “Don’t be a sinner – be a winner!” he’d continually shout at shoppers, resting only for sleep and a glance at his rhymer’s dictionary. He’s been accused and cleared of harassing a passer-by (being a passer-harasser), and Westminster Council tried and failed to give him an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (so he has no ASBO).
I’ve got a soft spot for the walking talking London landmark, and certainly without his rhyme, he wouldn’t be in the consciousness as he currently is. Equally I can’t really argue with his sentiment: I’d rather be a winner than a sinner, as would I’m sure many of his passers-by. Unfortunately some have pointed out that another sentence that rhymes is: “Do be a sinner, and a winner.” So just because it rhymes, it doesn’t make it right.
I’d certainly echo that thought further to the right down the Christian spectrum. American church campaigns to “pray away the gay” leave me and many centrist or leftie believers feeling rather cold and wanting to put some distance between us and our fundie cousins. Yet they continue to peddle their leaflets to the gay community, offering to “sinister to the minister” and “convert the flirt”. The rhyme sugar-coats. It sounds a lot more user-friendly than “reprogram the homosexual”.
So be wary of what you’re being marketed under the guise of a rhyme. While some surely work and are accurate and nice and decent and speak to us, they’re all just out to sell us a point of view. And by all means, spread the good word. Reach out to different parts of the community. And if it helps you witness to West Country caravanners, then please do buy that bumper-sticker:
On the A303 and Devonbound? Make sure you’re heavenbound.
…If it aids your fish ministry, then print on your waders:
Salmon or perch? Hear a sermon in church.
…If it supports your blood-group-based testimony, then shout from the rooftops:
I’m Rhesus positive and Jesus positive!
…If it assists you taking your message to the upper-facial bronzing salon, then by all means:
Evangelise to the tan gel eyes.
It may rhyme to say, “Don’t be a sinner – be a winner”, but the same’s true of: “Don’t be a sinner – or a winner”, “Be a sinner and/or a winner” and “Don’t be a sinner – have Pot Noodle for dinner. It won’t make you thinner but oh look it’s Frank Skinner.”
This new blog was meant to be more jokey/funny/light ent. Instead the first proper post looks like being far from that, and instead attempting to tackle a current religious/cultural hot potato. Catch.
I feel compelled to write about this week’s gay marriage vote, because on Twitter and Facebook, almost all comments I saw on the issue were from non-Christians (or ‘nonks’, as I hope will catch on), mostly ribbing Christians for getting it wrong. As for the Christians? They were posting, but largely avoiding the elephant in the room and whistling or talking about the weather.
Some Christian tweeters were sticking their heads over the parapet. One or two were defending that marriage should be for a man and a woman, but feeling bad about it. A handful of Christians were at the other end of the spectrum (or ‘rainbow’ seems a more appropriate term), arguing that compassion and equality overrides everything for them.
In the middle, there are many Christians who don’t know what to think – or do know what they think but don’t know how to express it without being branded intolerant. The simplified expression you hear is ‘Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve’, or the French version: ‘Adam & Eve, not Adam & Yves’, or the non-Christians biting back with ‘not Adam & Eve, or Adam & Steve, but dinosaurs’.
So where do I stand? Well I think… it’s none of my business. Who am I to judge what someone else does? I’ve tried looking at the what the Bible says about homosexuality, and some of the verses you can attribute to the culture at the time; others are a bit more clear-cut. I can’t reconcile that with the fact that, for me, Christianity is about compassion, love, and God’s-grace-for-all.
So it’s a mystery. Thankfully it’s not my job to unravel it. It’s none of our jobs. We don’t have to make the theology work. The only reason it’s relevant to even talk about it is because if the government are going to redefine marriage, the church needs to either support it or not.
Here’s the problem: Christians believe that God created marriage, and most will acknowledge that it was created between a man and a woman. But marriage took off in a big way, over the centuries, and so the church doesn’t own marriage. Marriage is above and beyond any organised religion, and in a fair, equal, democratic society, surely if a gay couple want the government to allow them to marry, then that should happen. Christianity’s teaching on respect, love and grace-for-all should surely mean we get behind that?
So government, make us all equal by all means, and while you’re at it, perhaps take over the legal aspects of marriage entirely. I’ve had a wedding, and the official side of it is, even at a church wedding, legalistic, time-consuming and not very romantic. Let’s give the government that bit to sort out, and then if a man and a woman want a church ceremony, they can have one, without even needing to step out and sign a register (no one’s favourite bit). If a man and man, or woman and woman want a ceremony too, some churches will offer them, and bless them, and adapt the liturgy so they’re not preaching all the biblical man/woman stuff.
I heard one vicar say that if he’s forced to conduct a gay wedding, he will, but he’ll still get to choose the sermon, and he’ll preach his little heart out about the wrongs of homosexuality. It hardly sounds charitable, but my advice (and I guess his) would be: get married somewhere else. But do get married. When I grew up, the stereotype of gay relationships was, to be honest, a bit sordid – all parks, public loos and personal ads. Surely we should encourage marriage. It’s a Good Thing, and a lot less chilly than parks.
The Bible’s pretty clear on homosexual sex – it’s not a fan – but equally it’s not a fan of a lot of things that I do in my life, and I’m delighted to say that all of those things are nobody’s business but mine, just as what a gay couple get up to is nobody’s business but theirs.
So let marriage by for all, I say. It’s not about ‘Adam & Eve’, or ‘Adam & Steve’, or ‘Madam & Eve’. Life, as I see it, is about ‘Adam & God’. The rest is just window-dressing.