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The ghost of Christmas past

December 24th, 2003

CP Snow once said that most ancient British traditions dated back to the second half of the 19th century. The same idea recently popped up in the London Review of Books, with Stefan Collini referring to the

second half of the 19th century, the palaeolithic age of so many British cultural institutions

. Christmas provides an ideal illustration of this.

All the central features of Xmas date back, more or less exactly, to this period, including Christmas pudding, mince pies and cake, Christmas cards and Santa Claus. Although Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Carol, tiresomely readapted every couple of years since, presents a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is much more accurate to see him as The Man who invented Christmas and his book as a work of invention.

If Christmas was pretty much fixed by 1900, its become immovably solidifed since then. Even the complaints about Christmas (commercialisation, losing the true meaning, secularisation, the loneliness of people with no family, the misery of people forced to endure family gatherings and so on) haven’t changed in decades.

The Australian Christmas is, of course, a bit different, but it’s equally stable as one merges into another and no-one can recall if it was 104 in the shade in 1966 or 106 in the shade in 1964 (I’m quoting from memory from The Complete Book of Australian Verse

The only new(ish) complaint has been about multiculturalism, with the inclusion of the Jewish Hanukkah in a generalized ‘holiday season’, particularly in the US, and the downplaying of explicitly Christian aspects in various public celebrations. But even this is old stuff by now.

Its arguable that Christmas is the rule rather than the exception. Despite the claims of postmodernism and the breathlessness of books like Future Shock, increasingly large areas of opur culture seem to characterized by stability amounting to stasis rather than change. Trends in popular music, for example, used to have a half-life measured in weeks; now, it’s more like decades. Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century (take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today. Go back to 1800 and the change is dramatic).

I’ll have more to say on this general topic in the New Year. But having celebrated the Solstice in a seasonally appropriate way with seafood and cold beer, I’ll be tucking in to the Christmas pudding and brandy sauce tomorrow, so don’t expect anything more from me until at least Boxing Day.

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  1. Factory
    December 24th, 2003 at 21:50 | #1

    “Trends in popular music, for example, used to have a half-life measured in weeks; now, it’s more like decades.”

    For commercial music perhaps. Acid Jazz anyone?

  2. December 24th, 2003 at 22:46 | #2

    Let me be the first to say Bah, Humbug.

    The removal of Christianity, the positive secularisation, may well have started a while back but it’s definitely not old news in Australia. Christianity was widely accessible in the Australian Christmas – albeit among a wider range of positions – just a few years ago. The present reaction against de-Christianising it in Melbourne was triggered when a vicar wrote to the newspapers saying that the Carols by Candlelight group was forbidding him from bringing Christ in this year, even though he had been allowed a spot last year.

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