The Transformation of Christmas

Posted on December 24, 2020

by Judith Flanders

While Christmas has transformed itself over the centuries, from a time for the nobility to display their wealth to their dependents, to a time for adults to enjoy what little extra they could gather, to a festival primarily for and about children—from elite to mass, from adult to child, from public to family—while the holiday has altered, it has survived, it has thrived, because, ultimately, Christmas is not what is, or even has been, but what we hope for.

G. K. Chesterton, by Ernest Herbert Mills, 1909. Image is in the public domain via Wikipedia.

Part of the meaning of Christmas is in repetition, but a very particular form of repetition, a repetition of forgetting and remembering, of remembering and misremembering. The early twentieth-century journalist G. K. Chesterton wrote dozens of pieces on the holiday, one of which was a story entitled “The Shop of Ghosts’. In a shabby London shop, an ‘old and broken’ white-bearded proprietor refuses all payment for the toys he stocks, prompting the narrator to recognize him as Father Christmas, just as another customer enters, none other than Charles Dickens, to whom Father Christmas confides that he is dying. Dickens waves it away: ‘Dash it all, you were dying in my time.’ The next customer is the eighteenth-century essayist Sir Richard Steele, who is also astonished by the old man’s complaint, ‘for the man was dying when we wrote about Sir Roger de Coverley and his Christmas’. So too with Ben Jonson, who remembers Father Christmas’s failing health in the seventeenth century. Finally ‘a green-clad man, like Robin Hood’ wonders at the phenomenon that is Father Christmas: ‘I [also] saw the man dying’, he remembers before it is given to Dickens to comprehend the greater truth: ‘Mr Dickens took off his hat with a flourish  .  .  . “I understand it now,” he cried, “you will never die.”’

It is this cycle of death and renewal that is the heart of Christmas. It allows us an illusion of stability, of long-established communities, a way to believe in an imagined past, when it was safe for children to play in the street, when no one locked their doors and everybody knew their neighbors, all the while unconsciously omitting the less desirable parts of those times. In our imagined past, we can vicariously enjoy Jane Carlyle’s Christmas party romp while remaining oblivious to Hannah Cullwick’s backbreaking, filthy eighteen-hour work-days. We can imagine the taste of home-grown and home-preserved vegetables while overlooking the miles trudged carrying buckets of water, or weeding in the blazing sun, or fear of a drought that would bring starvation.

The stories of family holidays of the past are similarly misted and softened, the edges smoothed away unconsciously. Psychologists studying the function of memory have found that, over time and over generations, distressing or embarrassing elements in the retelling of family events vanish; incidents that have no physical or emotional meaning to the next generation are forgotten; details that are unfamiliar to their audiences are replaced by more familiar details from their own lives. We can see how this has regularly occurred in Christmas celebrations in every country. When people say they miss the old holiday traditions, few mean that they miss people creeping up on their house and firing guns in the middle of the night. Or that they miss wearing goat-skeletons on their heads. Or that they miss Christmas being the one day in the year that they can afford to eat meat.

What they mean is that they miss what we understand emotively to be the central core of the holiday, not the lives we have, but the lives we would like to have, in a world where family, religion, personal and social relationships are built on firm foundations. It is not, therefore, surprising that the most profound changes in the celebration of Christmas accompanied the four great revolutions of the modern period in the West: the Civil War that toppled Charles I and brought Cromwell to power, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. These revolutions brought changes that were irreversible. Industrialization, modernization, urbanization: all contributed to a communal desire for the past, for a place and a time that never existed, where we are loved, protected and cherished.

Christmas postcard of Santa Claus and his reindeer. December 1907. Image is in the public domain via Wikipedia.

The rituals of Christmas allow us to believe, if only for one day a year, that that world exists. And the real magic? By repeating the rituals, we can go back there every year. Christmas nostalgia is not only for the Christmases of our childhoods, or those we have read about, or seen in films and television. It is a conflation of all of those Christmases, a pick-and-mix collection of traditions, emotions, and rituals. Some are ours, some our parents’, or what we think we remember of what our parents have recalled of their own childhood Christmases. Others come from books, from magazines, from how Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson or the Food Network or Oprah tells us things have ‘always’ been done, validating our own, or brand-new, customs by claiming that they are long-standing rituals based in historical reality.

‘Ceremony’, wrote a seventeenth-century historian, ‘keeps up all things; ’Tis like a Penny-Glass to a rich Spirit, or some excellent Water; without it the Water were spilt, the Spirit lost.’ So do our inexpensive Christmas containers, our rituals, and traditions, enable us to savor the rich emotions and values that lie within.

Ultimately, we need to believe that Christmas is, as Scrooge’s nephew Fred tells him

a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!


JUDITH FLANDERS is a New York Times bestselling author and one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street JournalThe Daily Telegraph, and The Times Literary Supplement. She lives in London. Her books include The Victorian City.

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