The resilience of a festival

I am currently staying for a week on the south coast of England, visiting relatives. So last night we headed off to Christmas Midnight Mass in Salisbury Cathedral. For readers who do not know it, it is a gem of ecclesiastical architecture, well worth a visit at any time. But what struck me most last night was the crowd of people who had come to the service – we were told there were nearly 2,000 in the congregation, and it was standing room only. And in his sermon, the Dean of the cathedral mused on the eccentricity of people who, in an increasingly secular society, would still turn up in this place at this time – something that was, in a slightly different context, also explored some years ago by Philip Larkin in his wonderful poem Church Going.

Most of my friends are agnostics or atheists, and yet many of them too join carol services and similar ceremonies in December. Christmas in particular, it has to be said, is a most resilient festival.

Of course we all know that Christmas falls on December 25th, but then again, the event it commemorates – the birth of Jesus Christ – may have taken place on any day of the year, as there is no reliable record of the date. It was not a festival kept in early Christian times. The key elements of today’s Christmas festivities, such as the socialising and exchange of gifts, did not emerge until much later.

By the time of the Reformation some of the reformers had become hostile to Christmas in part because they regarded it as an un-biblical festival, in part because they disliked the catholic resonance of the ‘Christ-Mass’ concept, but largely because of what they regarded as the excesses ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. This led to Christmas being banned in England under Oliver Cromwell – alongside all other religious feasts apart from the normal Sunday religious observances. Christmas was also banned under the influence of the Puritans in some parts of the American colonies around the same time.

So maybe Christmas has an unreliable pedigree, and there is still no shortage of people today who will argue that we have got the spirit of Christmas all wrong and that it is nothing more than an orgy of wasteful excess. But as for me, I don’t particularly care whether people celebrate the Christian festival (as I do), or pursue a secular escape from (what at any rate in Europe is) the winter, or try to have a family get-together during a holiday season. I believe that communities need holidays, and should be able to enjoy them.

Happy Christmas!

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