Christmas past, Christmas present: how secular Britain found new ways to celebrate the season

<span>Photograph: ClassicStock/Alamy</span>
Photograph: ClassicStock/Alamy

Like an elusive destination on a long-distance journey, Christmas is always coming. From a child’s perspective, it takes an eternity to arrive and then is gone in little more time than it takes to remove a present’s wrapping. In high street shops, Christmas has been coming since October, the month in which it becomes officially acceptable, since Fairytale of New York was lyrically cancelled, to begin playing Paul McCartney’s torturous Wonderful Christmastime.

But now that, according to the latest census, the UK is a minority Christian country, might Christmas stop coming and start going from our lives? In many respects, the religious aspects of Christmas have long been subsumed by, or at least dressed up with, its consumerist trimmings. As the Rev Richard Coles, broadcaster and former vicar of Finedon, Northamptonshire, puts it: “For most people, Santa and the Virgin Mary are equal members of the cast of Christmas.”

One well-established tradition of Christmas is the publication of studies showing the threat to Christmas traditions. This year we learn, according to a study by online marketplace Groupon, that 46% of the young have never sung a traditional Christmas carol and 47% think that midnight mass has had its day.

Last year, another survey produced the revelatory news that 38% of young people can’t stand brussels sprouts and a similar number avoid turkey. It’s enough to make you want to pull your Christmas cracker right now. But before we stack the hell-bound handcart with unwanted turkeys, it’s worth bearing in mind that Christmas has always been a fusion of the pious and pagan, the sacred and profane, and most of its traditions are either borrowed or relatively recent.

The Christian marking of 25 December officially began in the 4th century with what might now be called a case of cultural appropriation. The Roman celebration of the winter solstice Sol Invictus on that date was rebranded to commemorate Christ’s birth, over three centuries after that undated nativity (although one school of thought maintains that it was the pagan idolators who stole the date from early Christians).

In any case, it didn’t become a significant Christian event until the 9th century and didn’t gain the name Christmas, from Christ’s mass, until a couple of centuries later. Thereafter, there was a gradual accumulation of customs, rituals and traditions, secular and religious. For example, turkey wasn’t a popular Christmas meal until the 17th century. Kissing under the mistletoe is an 18th century English invention. And Christmas carols took off in the 19th century, as did a red-clothed bearded Santa Claus.

Christmas, then, is an adaptable if not moveable feast. Nonetheless, Coles is concerned that the role of the church in Christmas is in danger of disappearing.

Aside from deaths, marriages and baptisms, Christmas is the one occasion when non-churchgoers might find themselves in church. While attendance at midnight mass, what Coles calls a “peculiarly magical” event, hasn’t declined as steeply as the general congregation in recent years, the last pre-Covid Christmas in 2019 saw the lowest figures in many years.

“The church is a bit like the monarchy,” says Coles. “It has the appearance of being steady and unchanging, but just like the monarchy it is an enormous effort to create the illusion of permanence. If that effort fails, you could easily lose it in a generation. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

The high street too is an illusion of permanence, one that has been irreparably damaged by the internet and then kicked when it was down by Covid. No amount of Christmas decorations are going to bring back the crowds that have migrated online. Who wants the physical crush and existential despair when you can settle for the soulless convenience of computer clicking?

Beneath the changing fashions of consumerism and Christianity, however, there may remain something more elemental and abiding.

“Anything that allows people to come together at a special point in the year where you make an extra effort, that’s a durable thing,” says Coles. “Then this idea of light in darkness, of feasting in midwinter, that will last. And remembering the enchantment you experienced as a child, that you can’t experience in maturity, something in that is very powerful.”

Coming together to feast is indeed a lovely idea often undermined only by its realisation. According to Kelly Hearn, a psychotherapist who deals with stress issues, Christmas is a time not just of sharing but also “splitting” . This is the “all-or-nothing, black-or-white mentality”, she says, in which the two options for a family gathering are triumph and disaster, the latter growing in likelihood the more emphasis is placed on achieving the former.

“Idealising sets us up for disappointment,” she says.

“We hold ourselves to Sainsbury’s advert standards. The meal must be perfect, the gifts plentiful, the warmth and connection palpable throughout. All of us bringing our idealised selves to the table. Anything less can leave us feeling a failure, which isn’t in the Christmas spirit at all.”

Or rather it is one aspect of the Christmas spirit, the misanthropic version that doesn’t accord with love thy neighbour, honour your father and mother and all the other Christian pieties, but does speak to the familial endurance test that for many people the Christmas period represents.

Hearn recommends adapting a concept put forward by the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who argued for the “good enough” parent. She would like to see more focus on the “good enough”, rather than the perfect Christmas.

This year, those looking to avoid their families may be able to call on rail strikes and driver overtime bans as an excuse to explain their absence. Yet Coles thinks that Christmas could, if anything, be more than usually fraught nowadays “because we live in a more polarised world”.

It’s not just revisiting Brexit after the Harvey’s Bristol Cream has been fatefully opened. Divisions now go to the very heart of the dining table, where vegetarianism and veganism are making generational inroads into a carnivorous stronghold, with almost 90% of the under-30s believing that vegetarianism – presumably without brussels sprouts – should be catered for.

Hearn says that in her job she sees many people who are lonely and alienated and yearning for a connection at Christmas. But another reason why the tensions are liable to mount is because, in seeking out company, it’s rare that people spend so much time in passive close proximity, effectively incarcerated and unmoving in the sitting room. With so few external distractions on offer, an unusual amount of pressure is placed on the stupefying pleasures of TV.

There has been speculation that the king’s speech may soon be scrapped or replaced with something more informal (the crown karaoke? A royal standup routine?), but it’s the protean notion of the Christmas film that really captures the unique essence of a modern-day Christmas.

There are of course reliable emotional classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, complete with its community message and moving climax of James Stewart’s Christmas Day redemption. But it surely demonstrates the flexible nature of Christmas customs that a long-established seasonal stalwart is The Great Escape.

Naturally, the dramatisation of the second world war breakout from the German POW camp Stalag Luft III could be read as a kind of extreme rendering of the desire to be liberated from claustrophobic Christmas confines. But then what of Where Eagles Dare, another Christmas regular?

On the surface, it’s not immediately obvious what bearing an allied paratrooper raid on a castle in Nazi Germany has on the Christmas theme of goodwill to all men (so many yuletide traditions date from when women were still largely consigned to the kitchen).

But as Geoff Dyer writes in Broadsword Calling Danny Boy, his celebration of Where Eagles Dare, the equipment parachuted down by allied planes lands “in cushioning snow and trees, [where] the silver canisters have the quality of seasonal hampers stuffed full of guns, explosives and other weaponry – exactly what we wanted for Christmas as kids”. What’s more, he notes, the snowy setting “is so idyllically wintery it could be a scene on a Christmas card”.

And then the killing begins.

Therein lies the true, abiding message of Christmas. No, not murderous rage. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or not, or carnivore or vegetarian, or Brexiter or Remainer, and it’s of no consequence if you know what an Elf on a Shelf – Google it – is, or prefer Mariah Carey to O Come, All Ye Faithful.

What counts is that at this darkest time of the year we find ways to feel part of something larger than ourselves, and create the light and warmth that binds us together, even if it’s watching Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood machine-gunning Nazis.