Merry consumption!

FOR many people, this is a worrying Christmas, not just because of the credit crunch or global warming. They know that Christmas represents the Christian doctrines of renewal, rebirth and hope. They fear human life, and the global structure, has lost its sense of direction. They consider the Christmas festival is itself out of balance, that it has changed from being about family and religion to being a jubilee of consumption.

By William Rees-mogg

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Published: Wed 26 Dec 2007, 8:50 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:08 AM

If anyone invented the modern Christmas, it was the Romantics of the early 19th century. They made it more dramatic and less religious. Sir Walter Scott did not invent the Middle Ages, nor tartan Scotland, nor Bonnie Prince Charlie, nor Christmas. But he did embellish all these as myths; in the case of Christmas, he had more than a little help from Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria and Albert, the Prince Consort. Walter Scott wrote the first mission statement for the Victorian Christmas in Marmion in 1808.

'England was merry England, when Old Christmas brought his sports again. 'Twas Christmas broach'd the mightiest ale; 'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale; A Christmas gambol oft could cheer The poor man's heart through half the year.' Dickens added sugar to Scott's saccharin in A Christmas Carol. 'God bless us every one,' said Tiny Tim - and the monstrous turkey. 'It was a turkey! He could never have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped 'em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax.' Queen Victoria gave us Balmoral, and made Christmas a Royal Family event; Albert introduced the German element, bringing into every home in England a little tree that might have grown in the Black Forest.

The English Christmas emerged from the 19th Century, medievalised, sentimentalised, Scottified and Germanified, not to mention commercialised.

I'm not sure when the turkey became part of the Christmas myth. There is an old rhyme that says 'turkey, carp, hops, pickerel and beer, Came into England all in one year'; I think that was in the reign of Henry VIII, but turkey does not seem to have acquired its status as the Christmas bird until the 19th Century.

Now that turkey is available all the year round, it is rivalled by other Christmas birds; perhaps goose will come back into fashion, though geese have less meat on them than turkeys. The most surprising aspect of the Victorian Christmas is its power of survival. In the 18th Century, the modern Christmas had not come into existence.

Celebrations were modest, as were the presents. Because their correspondence has been published, we know how some of the authors of the 18th century celebrated Christmas.

There were no Christmas cards; they are a mid-19th century innovation; there were no Christmas trees; many families dined together on Christmas Day, but equally often, it appears, they would dine with friends. People wrote letters of goodwill to their friends, but these refer to a season of goodwill, which extended to the New Year.

Christmas was seen as a somewhat less important religious festival than Easter, which makes sense in Christian doctrine. The Resurrection of Christ is a more powerful Christian doctrine than the birth. If one glances through collections of 18th Century sermons, which can provide a fascinating insight into social attitudes, one seldom comes across a sermon on Christmas.

People did exchange presents. Because collected 18th Century letters tend to have been written by literary people, and preserved because their authors were well known, one would expect books to be common presents. There were also many presents of game.

Alexander Pope was punctilious about writing thank-you letters. In his later years, he was likely to spend Christmas either with Ralph Allen, the millionaire philanthropist, at Prior Park in Bath, or at home in Twickenham, as he did in 1742, 18 months before his death.

From Twickenham he wrote to thank Allen: 'I am much pleased with the birds you sent me; Mrs Blunt and I ate them. I am going to Twitnam to pass the holidays with Mr Murray, Lord Marchmont, and some others in the neighbourhood ... I wish you all a merry Christmas.'

Compared to the Victorian Christmas, the 18th Century Christmas was modest, rational and social. The presents were affordable and practical. There was a greater emphasis on hospitality than on extravagance.

It was the 19th century that invented the Christmas of excess, and the 20th century that exploited it. Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, many of us would settle for a return to the 18th century style of hospitality, conversation, goodwill and good humour. The Victorians set their stamp on English 19th Century culture, but in other areas we have set ourselves free from their cultural preferences. Very few modern buildings are designed in the Victorian Gothic style, much as we may admire Barry's and Pugin's work at the Palace of Westminster.

Alexander Pope was a marginal, though loyal and liberal, Roman Catholic; Samuel Johnson, who dominated the literary culture of the second half of the 18th Century, was an orthodox member of the Church of England and has been called an Anglican saint. He wrote a post-Christmas letter to James Boswell on December 27, 1777.

'Dear Sir, This is the time of the year in which all express their good wishes to their friends,and I send mine to you and your family. May your lives be long, happy and good.' I would write that to all my friends and readers. It is his Christian belief that defined the simple form of his Christmas wishes.

On a cultural level, Christmas has had its meaning obscured by the Victorian accretion of irrelevant sentimental symbols, reindeer, crackers, turkeys, plum pudding, brandy butter, Father Christmas himself. They are better suited to a feast of consumption than to the feast of Christ's birth.

On a religious level, Christmas has lost some of its meaning in terms of Christian belief. We might be better off with the Augustan moderation of an 18th Century Christmas, and far better off with a Christmas that is religious rather than materialist.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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