Reboot Santa! Christmas rebels call for change

Festive cheer: The key elements of Christmas have developed over two thousand years.

Is it time to rethink Christmas? The festival evolves gradually every year as new traditions are adopted – and now some argue it has changed so much that it needs to be reinvented.

Tomorrow, the countdown begins. Trees and lights may already be up in the High Street, the supermarkets restocked with tinsel and wrapping paper – but it is not until the first window opens on the advent calendar that the festivities of Christmas really begin.

It is one of the most popular holidays in the world, with millions taking part, but not everyone knows where all the traditions come from. Here are the stories behind six of the most important.

Snow. The perfect Christmas is a white Christmas. But according to historian Judith Flanders, we can be almost certain there was no snow on the first Christmas Day. The Bible does not say what time of year Jesus was born, but it does mention the shepherds watching their flocks by night – something they would not be doing in the middle of winter.

However, there were many pagan midwinter feasts in the Roman Empire, including a festival of the sun on 25 December and the Saturnalia in the days leading up to it. When Pope Julius I fixed Christmas Day in the 4th Century, he may have hoped to convert pagans already celebrating on that day.

The Christmas tree. Many traditions developed out of the pagan festival of yule, associated with the Norse god Odin. One custom involved an evergreen tree, brought into the home during the winter solstice. However, historians do not agree on whether the yule tree is actually related to the tradition of the Christmas tree.

The plum pudding. The festive dessert began as a kind of medieval sausage, preserved with fruits and spices, designed to last the winter. Over the centuries, the meat was gradually replaced with preserved fruits, sugar and alcohol – creating a dessert fit for a king.

The turkey. No Christmas dinner in the UK would be complete without it, but for centuries, many Christians around Europe preferred the humble goose to the exotic and expensive turkey. That all changed when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Scrooge gave the Cratchits an enormous turkey, establishing its reputation as an English Christmas dish.

Santa Claus. Father Christmas comes from Turkey, not the North Pole. The 4th-century Saint Nicholas was known for his acts of kindness and became the patron saint of children. His legend spread across Europe, with many variations. The Dutch version, Sinterklaas, came to America in the 17th Century and – with a little help from Coca-Cola –became the Santa Claus we recognise today.

The Christmas stocking. According to legend, Saint Nicholas wanted to help a poor man and his three daughters. One night, he threw a bag of gold through their window and it landed in a stocking drying by the fire.

It was an act of charity, like Scrooge’s turkey, or the gifts traditionally given out on Boxing Day. But some think that spirit of Christmas has been lost, replaced by consumerism, greed and gluttony.

Research shows the British will give and receive over one billion unwanted gifts this year. They will destroy two million turkeys and five million puddings – all unsold. Critics say Christmas is bad for the economy and even makes us unhappy.

So is it time to rethink Christmas?

Clean sheet

Yes, say some, let’s reboot Santa. Christmas has become too much about marketing, designed by advertising companies to make us spend money on things we don’t need. Too much about it is false: we are expected to feel jolly when we feel miserable, be grateful for presents we don’t want and spend time with people we’d rather avoid.

Relax, say others. It is what it is. Anyone should be able to enjoy a few days of extravagant fun. Throughout history and across the world, people come together at the bleakest time of the year to celebrate with food, family and friends. Its chaotic mix of religious and secular traditions makes it a midwinter festival that everyone can enjoy.

You Decide

  1. What’s the most important thing about Christmas?
  2. Is Christmas still really a Christian festival?

Activities

  1. Design an advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas.
  2. Write about a family tradition, where it comes from and why it is important to you.

Some People Say...

“Christmas is a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.”

Washington Irving (1783 - 1859), American writer.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Christmas is a holiday that mixes both religious and non-religious beliefs and traditions. Consequently, it has been opposed by both Christians and atheists. In 1647, English puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, outlawed Christmas, describing it as a festival “with no biblical justification”. In contrast, Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany all abolished or altered Christmas to remove its connection to “irrational” religion.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether anyone today is really proposing to ban Christmas. Each year, this argument is played out in the United States between liberal and conservative viewpoints. Religious conservatives argue that there is a “war on Christmas,” being carried out by non-Christians to remove the religious elements from the holiday. Others argue they don’t want to abolish Christmas, but only make it more inclusive to people of all faiths, as well as to those of none.

Word Watch

Advent calendar
In the late 19th Century, a German boy called Gerhard Lang ate a sweet on each day leading up to Christmas, sewn into a box by his mother. When he grew up, he produced the first-ever printed Advent Calendar in 1908.
Saturnalia
The festival in honour of the god Saturn was a time of excessive eating and partying and the exchange of frivolous gifts. It was followed by Kalends, around New Year, when Romans decorated their houses with lights and greenery.
Yule
Yule traditions that found their way into Christmas include the yule log, burnt on the twelve days of Christmas, the boar (Christmas ham) and yule-singing (the door-to-door singing that developed into carolling).
King
King George I (1660 - 1727) gained the nickname “Pudding King” for his reputed taste for plum pudding at Christmas. In Christmas Day 1927, George V (1865 - 1936) sampled a pudding that used ingredients from across the British Empire, turning it into a symbol of imperial unity.
A Christmas Carol
The 1843 novella played a significant role in creating the modern idea of Christmas. It popularised the seasonal greeting “Merry Christmas” and the anti-Christmas retort, “Bah! Humbug!”
Coca-Cola
A common myth is that the soft drink company invented the image of Santa with its 1933 advertising campaign of Father Christmas holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. In fact, it was the cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s who first drew Father Christmas as the jolly man in the red coat.
Boxing Day
On the day after Christmas, servants and tradesmen would receive a “Christmas box” from their employers. Churches also collected money donated by their congregation in alms boxes, which were given out to the poor on Boxing Day.
Economy
Some economists argue that Christmas spending stimulates the economy by encouraging us to shop. Others say it puts unnecessary strain on the system in December, whilst reducing economic activity during the rest of the year.
Unhappy
Research carried out in 2015 found that stress related to buying presents, meeting social obligations and financial worries meant that many Europeans felt “despondent and stressed” during Christmas.

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