A Christmassy lexicon
Christmas can seem less like a Christian festival than a celebration of shopping. ‘Has capitalism devoured Christmas?’ asked one British newspaper in 2015, while another, the previous year, promised an investigation of ‘Why Scrooge is an anti-capitalist hero, bravely resisting the commercialization of Christmas’. Articles of this kind have become a seasonal staple, and it’s now a cliché to point out that the holiday spirit is tainted by material excess and financial worry. But for evidence that this is nothing new we need only turn to the relevant entry in the OED, which cites the satirist William Hone complaining, as long ago as 1826, of ‘These Christmas bills, these Christmas bills.’
No less familiar a festive presence is the frosty moralist who emphasizes how easy it is to lose sight of precisely why, at Christmas time, we’re off work or off school. I can remember being told as a child that ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’: I nodded, thinking of the reverent words I sang at my school carol service, yet they swiftly gave way to other, more toothsome images. The OED contains plenty about the sort of Christmas fare that defeats pious self-restraint, whether it’s under goose — the poet Robert Southey writing in 1837 of ‘The great goose-pye, which in the Christmas week was always dispatched by the York coach to Bishopsgate Street’ — or under rum — an item from an Australian newspaper in 2001 reporting,
It’s innovation and adjustment time for that Christmas food icon the traditional Brit-style plum pudding complete with flames, brandy sauce, rum butter and runny custard.
The risks associated with Christmas cheer are addressed in an illustrative quotation from John Swan’s Speculum Mundi (1635): ‘They also say, that a hot Christmas makes a fat Church-yard.’ Another citation — from a Civil War pamphlet published in January 1643, with thoughts of the season’s foodstuffs still cloying its author’s mind — contains the claim that it is ‘As easie to win a Towne … as to make a breach in the wal[l]s of a Christmas Pie.’
When conversation turns to Christmas indulgence, it’s rarely long before someone remarks that it was originally a pagan festival. It is true that there were pre-Christian feasts to mark the winter solstice and the start of the new year, but as the historian Ronald Hutton observes in The Stations of the Sun (1996), his account of Britain’s ritual calendar, there is scant information about ancient midwinter practices. It’s worth noting, too, that early Christian tradition was vague about the date of Christ’s birth. The first reliable record that places it on 25 December is from 354. Hutton explains that ‘The pagan feast which Christmas replaced was not … much older’ and
had apparently been decreed only in 274, by the emperor Aurelian … [in] an attempt to provide a universal focus of worship to help bond the Roman world together.
Once the feast of the nativity was established, it absorbed into its nimbus a range of other celebrations that were close to it in the calendar.
The noun Christmas, deriving from the Old English Cristes mæsse (the mass or festival of Christ), took hold only in the early twelfth century. In his book The Seasons (2013), Nick Groom cites as the earliest description of an English Christmas a section of the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which pictures the seasonal revelry at King Arthur’s court in Camelot. Before the word established itself, the festival was known as midwinter or yule. Both were names for not only Christmas Day itself, but also the period surrounding it. Midwinter now tends to be used in the latter, less specific way, and if it denotes a single date it is either 21 or 22 December in the northern hemisphere and either 21 or 22 June in the southern. The OED notes that yule (from the Old English geól, and ultimately Scandinavian in origin) has since around 1850 been a literary archaism — as in Tennyson’s nostalgic line about ‘the merry, merry bells of Yule’. The entry for yule includes many items now obscure, such as yule-girth (‘the peace of Christmas’) and yule-work (‘preparations for Christmas festivities’). A more enduring item is yule-log; although the OED’s first attestation dates from less than 300 years ago, the burning on the Christmas hearth of a specially chosen log is a Nordic tradition of very long standing, and it continues, though today’s yule log often takes the rather abbreviated form of a decadent chocolate dessert.
Christmas has gone by other names, such as nativity and Nowell. The latter, originally a word shouted or sung by those marking the festival, was from the fifteenth century a name for the feast itself. The similar noel has since the eighteenth century denoted a Christmas carol, and since the twelfth century has been a given name — chosen for Christmas babies (Coward, Edmonds), though selected by some parents without reference to its seasonal associations (Gallagher, Fielding).
The urge to personify Christmas was manifest at least as early as the sixteenth century. He appears in a masque by Ben Jonson in 1616, complete with a long beard and truncheon. The OED’s first evidence for the name Father Christmas is in 1646; Santa Claus, introduced into America by seventeenth-century Dutch settlers, is traced back as far as 1773, when he was mentioned in the New York Gazette (in the form St. A Claus). The less durable Kriss Kringle (described by H. L. Mencken as ‘debased German’) is first spotted in 1830, in John Fanning Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia. It is followed by an illustrative quotation from 1849: ‘Do you think Kris Kringle will come down the chimney tonight?’ The source here is another work concerned with Philadelphia, James Rees’s moralistic Mysteries of City Life, and the seven-year-old girl who poses the question receives a brusque answer from her brother, three years her senior: ‘What nonsense … How can such a huge figure as he is represented get down our poor chimney?’
The modern image of Father Christmas is a nineteenth-century one, as in Thomas Hervey’s The Book of Christmas (1836), where an illustration shows him in the sort of furry robe later popularized (and turned bright red) by the American cartoonist Thomas Nast. It was in the Victorian period that Father Christmas came to be linked with gift-giving, and this, like so many of the season’s accoutrements, was an association developed by the burgeoning illustrated press. Publications such as Punch (founded in 1841) and the Illustrated London News (1842) created what’s now a wholly familiar iconography, complete with holly, mince pies and crackers. The last of these is first attested in the OED in 1841, and the entry makes the point that the item was originally known as a ‘cracker bon-bon’; the quotation is from a short story, ‘Delightful People’, which appeared in the cheap weekly magazine The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction.
It was Charles Dickens who best evoked the Victorian Christmas — its warmth, its focus on family, and its spirit of charity. Like many of his contemporaries, he at first treated Christmas sentimentally and nostalgically. Believing (correctly) that its traditions were in decline, he saw it as a pleasant relic of a society being radically altered by industrial advances and urbanization. In The Pickwick Papers, published in installments shortly before Queen Victoria’s coronation, he pictured Christmas ‘close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty’. This, he declared, was ‘the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness’ — and he remarked ‘How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!’
With the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, Dickens struck a different note. Ronald Hutton describes this story as ‘a passionate avowal of how the festival ought to be kept’, which ‘succeeded in turning Christmas celebration into a moral reply to avarice, selfishness and greed’. Nostalgia persisted, but now alongside an explicit anxiety about the state of society. As Hutton explains, A Christmas Carol
linked the new prosperity of the age with its social unease, and put the middle classes in the vortex of both, equipped with a feast which employed the former to allay the latter.
The same year that Dickens’s novella appeared, civil servant Henry Cole, who would go on to be the founding director of what’s now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum, sent the first commercially produced Christmas card. Designed by John Callcott Horsley, it depicted three generations of Cole’s family; a thousand copies were printed, for sale at a shilling apiece. The price deterred purchasers, but by the 1870s the phenomenon had caught on, and illustrators chose from an established repertoire of religious images (angels, the Three Wise Men, Jesus with his mother Mary) and secular ones (mistletoe, robins, wholesome children, an abundance of food). The OED’s first citation, dated 1883, comes from one of John Ruskin’s morally instructive letters addressed to Britain’s workers: Ruskin pictures an impatient mother abandoning her sluggish child in the snow and comments, ‘There is a Christmas card, with a picture of English “nativity” for you.’
It seems also to have been in the 1880s that the adjective Christmassy gained currency. A song printed in the magazine Fun in December 1881 has the word as its title, yet suggests that cynicism is apt to encroach on hearty expressions of seasonal gaiety. The OED has four citations from this decade, all fairly positive. But the term has often been used in a more jaundiced manner. It’s in this vein that the OED entry for my arse! — i.e. ‘you must be joking!’ — includes an extract from the BBC sitcom The Royle Family:
Barbara. Let’s all have a snowball! Don’t snowballs make your feel Christmassy, ey?
Jim. Snowballs my arse. It’s a bloody swizz this Christmas lark.
The snowballs in question are a cocktail made with advocaat and lemonade; for the perpetually unimpressed Jim Royle, they’re symptoms of the season’s forced jollity and saccharine atmosphere.
For most households, however full of festive cheer, there will tend to be a few of Christmas’s apparently obligatory trappings that seem a swizz. Often, one such overpriced and underperforming item is the Christmas tree. This symbol of evergreen vitality has ancient pagan origins, but the custom of displaying one in the home, highly decorated, developed in Germany in the seventeenth century. It was popularized in Britain by German-born royalty: credit usually goes to Prince Albert, who in 1841 erected such a tree at Windsor Castle, though Victoria’s grandmother Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of George III, had arranged for one to be put up there forty years earlier. Although Christmas tree itself isn’t attested until 1835, OED records an earlier description of the phenomenon dating from 1789, which identifies as a novelty a family’s having ‘an illuminated tree according to the German fashion’. Another citation, from the Illustrated London News in 1848, testifies to the influence on the public of images showing ‘Christmas Festivities at Windsor’, at which ‘the sideboards were surmounted with stately “Christmas Trees”, glittering with pendant bonbons, etc.’. In 1869, William Hazlitt expressed a little surprise at the fashion’s catching on: ‘the Christmas-tree … came to us from Germany directly … and is still a flourishing institution among us.’
Other yuletide paraphernalia for which the OED’s first citations are Victorian include Christmas pudding (1858) and the seasonally appropriate Christmas book (1875), as well as panettone (attested, perhaps surprisingly, as early as 1841). The first citation for pantomime that specifically associates it with Christmas dates from 1848, and a newspaper report in 1892 reflects that ‘The pantomime has gradually interwoven itself into our recognized Christmas festivities, so as to become an essential part of them.’
The sheer effort involved in Christmas preparations is apparent in OED material dating from this period. In the entry for Christmas cake we find an extract from Jane Eyre (1847), picturing
Beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince-pies, and solemnizing of other culinary rites.
The first citation for the rare verb to interpunctuate comes from an issue of Fraser’s Magazine in 1850:
They remind one of the nightmares which occasionally interpunctuate the festivities of the Christmas week.
(The pronoun they refers here to a couple of episodes in The Pickwick Papers.) Christmas is first attested as a verb in 1594, when it failed to catch on, and the first evidence for its meaning ‘to adorn with Christmas decorations’ comes from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851). Mayhew records a gardener commenting on how much money is spent on ‘Christmasing’ the churches, and notes, censoriously, the extravagance of even the poorest citizens when it comes to buying mistletoe and holly.
The OED testifies to the sheer variety of Christmas customs: the boy bishop who parodies a bishop’s role during the festive period, the tradition of drinking to the health of apple trees (mentioned under wassail, v.), and the Christingle presentation to a child of a lit candle set in an orange. Among modern customs, those likely to prove less welcome include the often crushingly dull round-robin letter. The OED’s entry records a surprisingly early – though non-seasonal – use dating from 1871, and the entry for word-process includes a quotation from Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections (2001) that touches on the risk of such impersonal Christmas missives meeting with a chilly reception. Christmas songs and carols are played interminably over the sound systems in shops (in the entry for Muzaked they are characterized as ‘treacly’), and there is always the risk of a joyless intervention by a grinch (a 1950s coinage by Dr Seuss, whose original Grinch had a heart ‘two sizes too small’).
Some entries allude to the now largely submerged tradition of Christmas anarchy. For instance, under Lord of Misrule, a source dating from 1552 reports that
This Cristmas I saw no Disgysyngs, and but right few Pleys; but ther was an Abbot of Misrule that made muche Sport, and did right well his Office.
More commonly, the potential for riotous holiday conduct is channelled into relatively benign activities such as guising or mumming, which involve putting on performances in return for hospitality. The OED explains mumming as ‘the action of disguising oneself’. Among the citations is this from Antiquitates Vulgares: or, The Antiquities of the Common People, a work published in 1725 by a Newcastle curate, Henry Bourne: ‘There is another Custom observed at this Time, which is called among us Mumming.’ Returning to the source, one finds Bourne characterizing it as ‘a changing of Clothes between Men and Women; who when dress’d in each others’ Habits, go from one Neighbour’s House to another, and partake of their Christmas-Cheer, and make merry with them in Disguise, by dancing and singing, and such like Merriments’. Local variations of this include quaaltagh in the Isle of Man — the term, borrowed from Manx, denoting ‘the practice or custom of going in a group from door to door at Christmas or New Year, typically making a request for food or other gifts in the form of a song’. In Newfoundland, it was once common at Christmas for men to dress in women’s clothes and take part in a mummers’ procession, and anyone doing so was known as an oonchook (which derives from óinseach, an Irish word for a clown or fool).
Scattered across the OED are hints of Christmas magic, mystery and strangeness. For instance, it records that at one time German settlers in Pennsylvania recoiled from a sinister, prank-playing figure they called Belsnickel, and that ‘The figure … is … preserved in certain North American communities, especially those of German origin’. In Orkney, a Christmas entertainment put on by tenants for their landlords is a bummock — the word probably comes from Old Norse — and in parts of Kent one can still see a hoden horse, a wooden head with clapping jaws that’s paraded during a Christmas masquerade. More deeply buried in the text of the OED is this, in the entry for idiosyncratic:
The Gambia’s most idiosyncratic Christmas tradition is its fanal processions, unique to the Kombos.
The fanal is a paper boat lit from the inside by a candle — effectively a giant lantern — which is carried or wheeled along by parties of celebrants who collect donations as they go. Where customs such as this survive, they feel like a rebuke to commerce and its homogenizing effects — evidence of the season’s plurality, rather than of capitalism having devoured its soul.