We have much to thank Charles Dickens for — not least the fact that, for old and young, Christmas remains the high point of our year.
A Christmas Carol, published 176 years ago this month, gave the festive holiday we know today its meaning — it’s a season full to the brim with feasting, fun and charity. God bless us, everyone!
I’ve spent a lot of my career on stage, in writing and on film, celebrating that idea.
This year, however — perhaps due to a narrow scrape with Jeremy Corbyn’s glum radicalism — I’ve found myself preoccupied with someone who supported an actual ban on Christmas: Oliver Cromwell.
One Christmas, nearly 400 years ago, Britain woke up and it had gone.
The Puritans — one of whom was Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland following the execution of King Charles I — had scrapped it.
This miserly sect of strict Protestants had been planning it for a long time. They had first emerged in Scotland — the Scots, always ahead of us, abolished Christmas in 1560. Indeed, Christmas Day didn’t become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.
The Puritans were unhappy that, despite them smashing religious images and plundering monasteries throughout the land, the Church of England hadn’t done enough to stamp out Catholicism.
What they hated above all about the old faith was its celebratory element: there were 45 official feast days, honouring the Virgin Mary, the apostles Peter and Paul, the martyrs, the archangels — on and on it went, each and every feast day an excuse for singing, dancing, eating, and copiously drinking.
And the most glaring example of making merry in the name of the Lord was Christmas. So, in 1644, Parliament simply abolished it, declaring it had ‘no warrant in the word of God’.
They had a point. All these feast days were completely spurious. And the riotous festivities that took place at Christmas had nothing to do with Christ and everything to do with the ancient pagan gods.
In the early days of Christianity, the old customs proved remarkably hard to suppress, so in the 6th century, on the principle that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, Pope Gregory shrewdly instructed St Augustine to turn the Pagan Winter Solstice festivities into a celebration of Christ’s birthday, with December 25 as the official date.
This also lined up Christmas with the Saturnalia, an old Roman festival, when Saturn — the god of plenty, agriculture, wealth, growth and dissolution — was celebrated at a vast outdoor banquet attended by the gentry of Rome.
For a week after, schools were on holiday, the law courts were closed, all work was stopped, criminals weren’t executed or even punished, and (unless the enemy insisted on attacking) war was suspended.
There was drinking and dancing, and presents of lamps, candles, dolls and evergreen branches were given. Houses, shops and public buildings were ablaze with light.
Cross-dressing was encouraged: women as men, men as women, and sometimes people as animals. Slaves were waited on by their masters; children, normally seen but not heard, were allowed to take part — they even had a festival of their own, the Juvenilia — and everyone participated in the great dance, the ‘dance of the god’, to bring new life and energy to the flagging world.
In the Northern hemisphere, pagans prized evergreens such as holly as symbols of life continuing in the dead of winter; the newly Christianised Anglo-Saxons adopted it as an emblem of Christ’s thorns.
The Anglo-Saxons were conquered by the Normans in 1066, who coined the word ‘Christ-Masse’, and threw themselves vigorously into the revels. Spread over the Twelve Days of Christmas, these formed the principal annual holiday of the feudal world.
Families attended Christmas Day mass, then gorged themselves on roast beef, plum porridge, minced pies, cakes and ale. Next there were plays, followed by non-stop dancing, singing, drinking and the exchanging of presents.
On the final day of the celebrations, Twelfth Night, there was a last outburst of indulgence. And all this went on under the approving eyes of the priests.
Despite the best efforts of the Reformation, that thousand-year-old spirit of Christmas endured.
By the start of the 17th century, however, England was changing, and Christmas with it. The feudal structure that underpinned it all was virtually at an end.
Central government became more powerful, which drew the nobility to London; both Elizabeth I and her successor, the Scottish king James VI (who became King James I of England) felt obliged to send the nobles back home at Christmas to look to the needs of their tenants and revive the old customs.
In Ben Jonson’s play Christmas, His Masque, presented at Court in 1616, Father Christmas cries: ‘Why, gentlemen, would you have kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas, Christmas of London, and Captaine Christmas?’
The old boy is surrounded wherever he goes by his ten children — Misrule, Carol, Minced Pie, Gambol, Post-and-Pair, New Year’s Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering and Baby Cake.
Gambols, wassails and baby cake were soon to be in short supply for the Stuart court. Charles I had succeeded his father James I in 1625. As a Catholic sympathiser, he swiftly embarked on a collision course with the increasingly Puritan Parliament.
This led, in 1642, to civil war: Parliament versus the Crown. Short of funds, English MPs approached their Scottish counterparts for help, who assisted only on condition that the Church of England would be reformed.
Led by Puritan radicals, Parliament agreed, taking the first symbolic steps towards cancelling Christmas — a filthy Catholic invention, they called it, with the ‘trappings of Popery and rags of the Beast’.
Christmas Day itself was decreed an ordinary working day, on which shops were legally obliged to remain open.
This did not prove popular. In 1643 in London, a mob of apprentices forced shops that had opened to close. But the Puritans persisted with their mission.
In January 1645, a new Directory for Public Worship declared Sunday the only holy day; no other feast day had ‘warrant in the word of God’, and ministers holding services on any day other than the Sabbath faced imprisonment.
The draconian new regime was bitterly resented. In 1646, apprentices in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, rioted; the following year on London’s Cornhill, an angry mob physically stopped the Mayor and his men from pulling down the Christmas decorations from a water conduit that revellers had playfully festooned. The protest turned violent; one man died of his injuries in Newgate jail. Elsewhere, congregations defiantly held services on Christmas Day.
In 1647, after Charles I had finally been defeated by Parliamentary forces, a pro-Christmas riot in Canterbury — which had until then been solid in its support of Parliament — resulted in the rioters taking control of the city, pinning up holly and encouraging revelry in the name of ‘God, King Charles, and Kent’.
Charles I was beheaded in 1649, but in 1653 the rumble of pro-Christmas discontent was still sufficiently disquieting for Oliver Cromwell, newly installed as Lord Protector, to enact measures that punished not only ministers who conducted Christmas services, but their congregations as well.
It was all in vain; nothing could kill the spirit of Christmas. Services were still conducted, carols still carolled, feasts were devoured, gourds were drained and merry-making ran on unbridled — albeit behind closed doors.
Cromwell, having taken up residence in the Palace of Whitehall, and briefly toyed with the idea of having himself crowned, soon took to the high life. He liked music, playing bowls and hunting. For his daughter’s wedding he even laid on a lavish feast and entertainment fit for royalty.
He died in 1658, after which the great Puritan project stumbled.
The monarchy was restored in 1660, and so was Christmas, joyously. In the satirical Poor Robin’s Almanack that year, a homespun versifier wrote:
‘Now thanks to God for Charles’ return
Whose absence made old Christmas mourn
For then we scarcely did it know
Whether it Christmas were or no.’
Despite its jubilant welcome, however, the season was not quite its former self; it became increasingly nostalgic and respectable.
It was Charles Dickens — a reveller in the great festive carnival tradition — who changed all that. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, combined the noble spirit of Christmas, of giving and forgiving, with a blissful sense of abandon.
This reached its climax in A Christmas Carol, where old Mr Fezziwig, the London businessman to whom the young Ebenezer Scrooge was apprenticed, is a positively Saturnalian figure, dancing himself to a standstill.
But it is Sleary, the lisping circus owner in Hard Times, who truly gives Dickens’s last word on the subject: ‘People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow…they can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning. Make the betht of uth, not the wurtht.’