Introduction: Unpacking the Myth of Christmas
When we think of Christmas, we often think of the glowing celebrations and colourful conjuring-up of deep midwinter festivals and festivities, of the re-telling of a story that has gone back 2,000 years to the birth of a child in a manger, under a burning star, or even further back into time – to the glimmerings and Götterdämmerungs of much older, more ancestral pagan celebrations and rituals of solstice suns and the promise of the rebirth of the year, that make us feel somehow that we’re participating in some deep magic, some atavistic world of connection and history, as we cosy ourselves back in our sofas, turn on the TV, and pour another glass of mulled wine.
In fact that vision of Christmas is a complete fabrication. The story of Christmas is an invented myth, as constructed and artificial as the lights on the tree, and a distorting and in many ways deceitful misreading of, and projection onto, the past. Christmas, as we know it, is a very recent invention, barely older than the post-boxes through which we – or through which we used to, in a forlorn and bygone analogue age – stuff our annual festive messages.
Indeed, the previous age of physical Christmas cards, actual letter boxes, and postage stamps, is now about as traditional as the gaudy concoction of tinsel, Christmas turkey, Brussels spouts, mistletoe or crackers that we think of today as authentically festive. Most were invented, imported, or repackaged for us in the industrial mid-nineteenth century, a strange Smörgåsbord of novel concoctions variously raided or colonised from France, America, Germany, Holland, and Turkey (though not the turkey itself, which came from ye olde America).
Most people before 1800 ate beef for Christmas – if you were lucky enough that is (as the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen might say) to have something to eat. Many had to make do with capon (castrated chicken) – we largely owe turkeys at Christmas to Bob Cratchitt, and the mass marketing of consumer Christmassing that took off with the mass marketing of consumer everything, about 150 years ago – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was deliberately aimed at this burgeoning new market, the first commodity Christmas book – especially packaged and presented by Dickens to be attractive as a (bought) present. He was right: the first edition sold over 6,000 copies in its first week.Why do we immerse ourselves so grandly, so luxuriously, in these obvious fabrications – for twelve months of the year we mock the religious superstitions and fundamentalisms of the past – the eucharists, baptisms, celibacys, burkas, and crucifixions – and then suddenly we go doe-eyed at yet another airing of Kings Carols at Christmas on our high-res plasma screens, conjuring up a world that never existed, except on television schedulings, eager for eyes to glue to sets over the “festive period” (ie the captive mass audience of daytime workers, suddenly released from their Marlovian chains for ten days, again if they’re lucky – in the UK, Christmas Day only became a bank holiday in 1834).
Up to the late 19th century, the singing of Christmas carols was normally performed by singers visiting people’s houses, and carols — generally considered to be secular in content — had been excluded from Christian worship. The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, was held on Christmas Eve in 1918 – which makes Carols from King’s about as traditional as grocery bags with handles (also invented in 1918). Churches, recognising the pull of popular, secular carol singing, clearly wanted to get bums on pews – the same commercial and materialistic impulse behind BBC2 production managers today, who seem to show scant regard for the social teachings of little baby jesus for the rest of the year.
Perhaps nowhere is this great lie and mass delusion of Christmas so clearly evident than in the popular myth that Christmas festivities are not “really” about little baby jesus, but are actually about some deep pagan celebration of the turning year, and that somehow by spending three hours basting your Waitrose bird in the AGA you are connecting with neolithic rituals of rebirth and resurrection.
The practices and symbolism of Christmas all originate in Victorian metropolises, not the wilds of ancient Wessex – to paraphrase Scrooge, the visions of xmas we so eagerly feed ourselves with have more of “gravy than grave” – the undigested and unprocessed products of mass alienation, desperate inequality, social atomisation, and the fragments of underdone lives.
Like some vast opiate of the year, Christmas promises to wipe away the agonies and inequalities – the structural conditions of the Cratchitt-Scrooge dynamic, to which they both inevitably and ineluctably return the next day. It is a moment of delightful – temporary – glorious – oblivion and forgetting of the reality of our year, the reality of the very consumption that we glorify and sing hymns to so eagerly on Christmas morning, forgetting the sweatshops of elves lining our stockings with ash. Surely in the modern world it is Christmas, not religion, that is truly “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
“There was always Christmas time/To wipe the year away/I guess that morning they’d decided/That the war would have to wait” (George Michael, December Song). The social meaning of Christmas is actually its context, is what it is not – one day a year at least away from the misery and alienation of work and war.
Charles Dickens and the Invention of Christmas
Where did it all come from? Many people point to Charles Dickens, who in his blockbuster Christmas novel of 1843 popularised the season as a time for festive turkeys, the eponymous carols of its title, as well of course as the modern “ethic” of Christmas, as you might call it – its Victorian idea of “social conscience” (aka disavowed guilt). And yet Dickens himself was as much a product, or effect, of the wider forces his book did so much to publicise and promulgate as their cause and originator.
For A Christmas Carol is as much a byproduct of modern capitalism as of Christianity – of the “Christ” so oddly slipped into its title, yet who makes so little appearance in the book itself. In Dickens’ masterful and fictional hands, Christmas is a tale of food, of forgetting, and of family – it is here where you see his real deftness and skill as a modern, secular writer and publiciser. It is both a magical window into the new social constructions of the prosperous, urban “middling” classes (as they called themselves), and a desperate response to – indeed a sort of risen or reflected “Ghost” of – the dreadful conditions of capitalism for the rest of the year, that somehow always lurk uneasily just outside their merry little windows. In that sense, the novel resembles the commercial shop windows so often seen in his book, looking both inwards and outwards, both to the past and ambivalently to the future.
The “Ignorance and Want” that old Scrooge is so startled to see cowered just beyond his window, in fact exist as much on the over-stuffed hearths and charitable indifference of the middling classes as under the ominous coat-tails of Christmas Present, which the obdurate old capitalist meets outside on his midnight wanderings round the capital. Not only Christmas Present but Christmas Presents always contain, and are built on, these two drivers of modernity.
The guilty conscience of those doing so well under this system of exploitation and immiseration – this vast cloak of concealment and merry-making – is equally apparent in Dickens’s plea for ‘charity’. He doesn’t want to actually change the material conditions and structures that generate poverty, he merely wants us to alleviate their worst excesses, to feel sorry for the byproducts of the system that also produces the glowing Christmas trees and mass-culled turkeys and gaudy crackers. You half expect Dickensian charity to be a similar sort of festive cracker – with the ghastly ‘joke’ of Christmas finally revealed, the vision of the system of naturalised and normalised subjugation and degradation, like Marley’s Ghost, appearing as some dreadful nightmare, from whose history we are all trying to awake.
But Dickens never did: he shows no signs of understanding the lurking dynamic or dialectic (to use a word from another author writing in London at the time of Dickens, but who was writing about the factual conditions of the working people, not the fictions and fantasies of Tiny Tim) that produced both the well-meaning but ultimately fatuous philanthropy of the rich and middle classes and the chronic poverty their wealth was created out of. Charity, as Oscar Wilde understood – surveying the same streets with an eye a good deal more realistic than Ebeneezer Scrooge’s – was an ideological way of avoiding political or social solutions to these problems, on any meaningful or structural level.
Charity is not a solution [to poverty]: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible … Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism)
How the figures of ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ must have laughed at Dickens’ ignorant and wanting tale. Just as the worst slave-owners were the ones who treated their slaves kindly, Wilde notes, so the worst oppressors today are the ones who present themselves as philanthropists and who sanction hand-outs to those whose actual needs and wants are rights to be met, not luxuries to be placated by the indifferent whimsy of the rich.
Coca Cola and the Fairy-Take of Christmas
Central to all this is the ambiguous figure of Charles Dickens, whose celebrated ‘Christmas Carol’ oddly failed to mention either Carols or Christ. It was really a paean to food and drink, to the rituals of stuffing, and a panegyric to the false and supine unconsciousness of family life. False because Dickens himself treated his family shoddily – he threw his wife out (whom he referred to as “the donkey”) in order to shack up with an 18-year-old actress, and eventually became alienated from his own children and Tiny Tims, who no longer visited him. In later life he flogged his xmas story in America during lengthy and highly lucrative reading tours (selling out 2,000 seat arenas and charging $2 a seat – a business deal Jacob Marley would’ve been proud of). As Griff Rhys Jones notes, “If anyone was turning Christmas into a business opportunity it was Charles Dickens himself” (Charles Dickens and the Invention of Christmas). Indeed, in his final years he seems to have rejected the whole myth and industry about exactly this sort of fictional, mass-consumption xmas that his books did so much to push, peddle, and promote, finally recognising the inherent moral vacuity and cultural falsity of the portrait he had painted.
As we have seen, “Christmas” – or perhaps “Christmas™” might be a better term for it – wasn’t some ancient, deep festival that links us to our past – the festive crackers were imported from France by confectioner Tom Smith in 1847, the fir trees were pulled from Bavaria, the turkeys from America. Before the 1840s, few people ever gave presents at Christmas – New Year’s Day was the traditional day, and the exchange of things was modest. Giles Fraser, a journalist and broadcaster and also Rector at the south London church of St Mary’s, Newington, notes this curious paradox of modern Christmas, in that those who celebrate it the most are also those for whom its underlying and historical spiritual significance has almost zero meaning:
Every year, the cultural mash-up between Santa and Jesus, Rudolph and the angel Gabriel, gets ever harder to distinguish. In 1951, French Catholic clergy burnt an effigy of Santa Claus in front of Dijon cathedral. Extreme, yes. But I get it. Christmas has become far too confused.
Some years ago a little boy came to our Christmas nativity play dressed up as Batman. He sat among the kings and shepherds, the Vicar unclear as to his theological role. This cultural fusion has long been with us, of course. Arguably, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens have formatted our celebrations more than the Christ-child in the manger. “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time,” sang Band Aid. Well, there won’t be snow in Bethlehem either (I just checked). It’s the Middle East for heaven’s sake. Snow is not a big part of the weather. Christmas has become a strange jumble of cultural references.
Everything seemed the wrong way around. The people to whom Christmas was primarily addressed thought it an insult to their pain, and yet those who celebrated it the most seemed quite oblivious to its deeper existential message.
Christmas itself was in danger of dying out completely at the start of the nineteenth century. It was briefly banned completely under Cromwell, and by the end of the 18th century was slowly fading away, about as relevant as wassailing. But the demands and desires of rampant industrial capitalism quickly recognised its utility, both to sell us things (ie maximise profits) and to act as one of those ingenious capitalist inventions – like the national anthem and the modern monarchy – as fantasies to conceal the reality of a deeply divided and unhappy, traumatised society. As Shelley said of the reinvention and rebranding of the newly restored monarchy, now firmly under the control of the new merchant class, it was simply “the string that tied the robber’s bundle” (A Philosophical View of Reform, 1819–20) – an ideological unifier for the real commercial and financial interests that could work unmolested, as Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge do for 364 days of the year, unseen and unaccountable. It is a beautiful distraction – in the Society of the Spectacle, as Guy Debord has aptly termed the modern age, Christmas is the holy of holies.
What is so astonishing – rather like going into some devout Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and being suddenly surrounded by worshippers of illuminated Virgin Births and fantastical Resurrected Corpses – is simply that so many people, when you look around the Carnival of Christmas today, fall for all this nonsense. It clearly satisfies, and correlates with, deep and desperate affective needs and wants – just as any addiction or religion does – and woe betide anyone who tries to taken their festive bottle away, before they’re ready to face reality.
The ideological behemoth and commercial juggernaut of Xmas, like the Coca Cola-like festive truck rampaging through your quiet village, has got it all sewn up. Not only through its relentless selling of Christmas – the idea of it, the content of it – like a designer brand manically promoting itself – but it’s also got the critiques of it covered. Just look at the grossly damaged and secretly sentimental Grinch, or Jack Skellington’s misplaced and myopic Nightmare before Christmas Pumpkin King, grown weary of celebrating the same holiday endlessly and seeking for ever-new territories and festivities to colonise (a franchise of Xmas owned, unsurprisingly, by Disney), or the clearly PTSD-suffering Ebenezer – anyone voicing hostility or, even worse, indifference to its ideology and vacuous onslaught – is presented as somehow heartless, dissociated, emotionless, cynical – those two little words ‘Bah Humbug’ having become the perfect riposte and tidy catchphrase for all those smug choristers, shop assistants, and family members trying to cajole you into its forced and artificial, cheerless ‘festivity’, their heartbeats seemingly reduced to the vapid pulse of the Muzak that fill the stores in some final, last-ditch and desperate attempt to get your cooperation and your cash.
‘Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas’ (1997): another useful analysis of the curious fabrication and “cultural mash-up” of Christmas. “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church”, the programme notes – indeed the early Christian church wisely didn’t feel the need for having a ‘Christmas’ celebration for nearly 400 years (and generally assumed Christ was born in the Spring, when shepherds would be out watching their flocks). It also observes that the Victorian fondness for mistletoe had more to do with their otherwise uptight sexuality than Druid solstices, and that they rather predictably chose to depict “Santa Claus” as “a rotund bewhiskered robber baron of the late 19th century”, who for some curious reason – as Saint Nicolas – chose to live and be found in a shopping mall.
All those, like Scrooge, who initially seemed to have made a stand against this onslaught, be it noted, inevitably cave into it at the end – like some vast ball-less Christmas tree, or prick-less holly, or castrated cajon. What we need – what would be genuinely celebratory and electrifying to have – would be to have some counter-cultural anti-hero, setting xmas trees on fire, bursting the bubble of this lachrymose superficial, meaningless, and socially dangerous orgy of materialism and obedience. Someone who might challenge the empty spiritualism of the worship of things; someone who might critique the closeted and claustrophobic straightjacket of the traditional family and family values, someone like … well, Jesus.
Rod Tweedy, PhD, is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation (Routledge, 2013), a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience; the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge, 2017), and the editor of The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2021). He is also an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and and the user-led mental health organisation, Mental Fight Club.
Useful exploration of the various recent and invented myths and fabricated stories that came into being – like the Christmas card and the Letter Box – in the mid-19th century. It dispels the various egregious superstitions around mistletoe, the holly and the ivy, being somehow authentic “pagan” features of the season (druids used mistletoe to cure infertility and the effects of poison, not to “kiss under” – a custom introduced, again, in the early 19th century with the ‘Romantic’ druidic revivals). The popular carol The Holly and the Ivy, for example, can be traced only as far as the early nineteenth century.
It may come as a surprise to our Hollywood-addled world, but Christmas toys are not actually made by Santa’s elves, but by teams of exploited migrant workers, usually women, who are not even paid the minimum wage, and who have no job protection or security as this grim documentary into the actual reality of Christmas consumerism and production – the Shadow side of Christmas, in Jungian terms – darkly reveals.