Christmas as usual

by John Quiggin on December 24, 2004

Since Christmas never changes (and a good thing too!) I’m reposting my Christmas Eve post from my blog last year. I did plan more work on it, but haven’t done any (story of my life). Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

CP Snow once said that most ancient British traditions dated back to the second half of the 19th century. The same idea recently popped up in the London Review of Books, with Stefan Collini referring to the

second half of the 19th century, the palaeolithic age of so many British cultural institutions
. Christmas provides an ideal illustration of this.

All the central features of Xmas date back, more or less exactly, to this period, including Christmas pudding, mince pies and cake, Christmas cards and Santa Claus. Although Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Carol, tiresomely readapted every couple of years since, presents a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is much more accurate to see him as The Man who invented Christmas and his book as a work of invention.

If Christmas was pretty much fixed by 1900, its become immovably solidifed since then. Even the complaints about Christmas (commercialisation, losing the true meaning, secularisation, the loneliness of people with no family, the misery of people forced to endure family gatherings and so on) haven’t changed in decades.

The Australian Christmas is, of course, a bit different, but it’s equally stable as one merges into another and no-one can recall if it was 104 in the shade in 1966 or 106 in the shade in 1964 (I’m quoting from memory from The Complete Book of Australian Verse

The only new(ish) complaint has been about multiculturalism, with the inclusion of the Jewish Hanukkah in a generalized ‘holiday season’, particularly in the US, and the downplaying of explicitly Christian aspects in various public celebrations. But even this is old stuff by now.

Its arguable that Christmas is the rule rather than the exception. Despite the claims of postmodernism and the breathlessness of books like Future Shock, increasingly large areas of opur culture seem to characterized by stability amounting to stasis rather than change. Trends in popular music, for example, used to have a half-life measured in weeks; now, it’s more like decades. Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century (take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today. Go back to 1800 and the change is dramatic).

{ 12 comments }

1

Tony 12.24.04 at 8:42 am

Merry Christmas!

2

Graeme 12.24.04 at 9:58 am

Good stuff. Yes, folklore traditions supposedly handed down from antiquity were in many instances invented by clergymen in the late 19th Century, and then given spurious authority thanks to mindless repetiton by others.

3

bad Jim 12.24.04 at 11:10 am

Then, on the other hand, there may be traditions which are merely old:

Were we to attend a 16th-century court banquet in France or England, the food would seem strange indeed to anyone accustomed to traditional Western cooking. Dishes might include blancmange – a thick puree of rice and chicken moistened with milk from ground almonds, then sprinkled with sugar and fried pork fat. Roast suckling pig might be accompanied by a cameline sauce, a side dish made of sour grape juice thickened with bread crumbs, ground raisins and crushed almonds, and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. Other offerings might consist of fava beans cooked in meat stock and sprinkled with chopped mint or quince paste, a sweetmeat of quinces and sugar or honey. And to wash it all down, we would probably drink hypocras, a mulled red wine seasoned with ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves and sugar.

(Scientific American). The gist of the article is that the theory of what was good for you changed (for reasons now more risible than intelligible) between their cuisine and ours.

Such medieval mush survives in our age as traditional fare in Czech villages (asserted w/o link) and perhaps at Christmas among Americans of Scandinavian descent in the form of rice pudding (see TNH).

As for neckties, while it’s true that American currency depicts our founding fathers in neckcloths instead of four-in-hands, and their sumptuary uniformity (tricorns, queues) was jettisoned soon afterwards, male formal attire retains the superfluous buttons and elaborate collar of the prerevolutionary prototype.

(A tie does keep your neck warm, and if you’ve bought a shirt with the right neck size, it won’t strangle you.)

Merry Christmas, God Jul, Happy New Year and Merry Perihelion to all!

4

des von bladet 12.24.04 at 11:22 am

I spent Twinkletree in Tallinn (Estonia) a couple of years ago, where they thoughtfully had laid in lots and lots of snö, and a vair vair large Twinkletree in the main square, of which a guide claimed that the custom had started in Tallinn improbably long ago. (I’m still, sadly, looking for a decent social history of the Twinkletree which neglects to believe that Luther invented it, which he clearly didn’t, or that there is an unbroken continuity of practice from a pagan past, which there clearly isn’t, or that “it is a German custom imported by prins Albert, you know like the piercing” is an adequate explanation, which it most certainly is not. Any suggestions, in any Yoorpean langwidge, gratefully accepted.)

And my festive reading, which is the point, was Hobsbawm and Ranger (Eds) The Invention of Tradition, much of which would be laugh-out-loud funny at any time of year, but is exceptionally jolly at Twinkletree (although it doesn’t cover the feast itself).

5

dave heasman 12.24.04 at 3:55 pm

Christmas Day has only been a holiday in Scotland since 1958.

6

Matt McGrattan 12.24.04 at 8:28 pm

The Czech traditional Christmas meal takes place on Christmas Eve and the main dish is carp — which will be prepared in a number of ways and there will be a fish soup made with carp roe. There’s also usually a big bowl of potato salad made with ham and apples (among other things).

There’s no medieval mush.

[Unless the Czech christmas meals I’ve had are totally atypical…]

Carp are everywhere… you can see guys in the street all over Prague with big tanks full of live carp for sale.

7

Matt McGrattan 12.24.04 at 8:35 pm

..oh yeah, and the Czechs don’t go in for Santa Claus.

Kids there get their presents from ‘jezicek’ i.e. Wee Jesus, or Little Jesus…

8

Matt McGrattan 12.24.04 at 8:35 pm

..oh yeah, and the Czechs don’t go in for Santa Claus.

Kids there get their presents from ‘jezicek’ i.e. Wee Jesus, or Little Jesus…

9

Maynard Handley 12.24.04 at 11:10 pm

While Western men’s formal wear may not have change in a hundred years, what men ACTUALLY wear has changed substantially. More interesting is the question of whether this will change in the next 100 years.

One can imagine the whole “comfort is all” trend reaching its ultimate conclusion with people going to the mall or flying in their pajamas and dressing gown (especially if some gangster rapper adopts this style).
On the other hand, one can also imagine a sort of backlash, a way for men to differentiate themselves from the riff-raff by wearing jackets and ties out of the office.

With global warming coming, my bet would be on (a) rather than (b).

10

Deb 12.25.04 at 2:10 am

’Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the blog.
The threads all were silent
Most blokes drank eggnog.

Oh how they prattled and tried to look smart
Talking ‘bout politics, science and art.
Some liked to spar, others just spout
Nonsense like homophily (what’s THAT about?).

And I was one of them, though I’m not a bloke
I like to joust and I like to joke.
Some chaps grew angry because I was bold
Cocky and arrogant and seemingly cold.

I scorned the economists
Mocked the Christians
Of all the white boyz
I loved to make fun.

Am I really a woman
Or just a dull troll?
When I say to the fellows
”Bring it on. Let’s roll.”

For the next two dozen hours
I pledge not to fight.
In honor of Hay Soos,
I’ll sing “Silent Night.”

11

nic 12.25.04 at 9:09 am

Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century (take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today.

Maybe, if you consider only formal wear, but what they were wearing underneath is another story. Besides, even in formal wear, excusez moi, cut and fabric are what makes the difference. So, as a distant relative of Mr Giorgio Armani, ahem, I have to pedantically disagree with your bold claim about the lack of progress in men’s fashion :-)

(no I’ve never even met him, and yes, it’s a pathetic claim to fame)

Happy Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus to everyone!

12

bad Jim 12.25.04 at 9:50 am

It’s entirely likely that the availability of arguably medieval cuisine in the Czech Republic is confined to a single restaurant somewhere on the outskirts of Prague. The connection between pudding and porridge was suggested by commenters at TNH. Likening either to blancmange was my lousy idea.

Americans of Scandinavian descent used to make sausage (korv) as a holiday tradition, even mailing such a perishable commodity cross-country. It’s my understanding that such foods have long since ceased to be eaten in the old country. Sometimes the traditions of immigrants are time capsules, snapshots of another time rather than another place.

At least my heritage doesn’t include lutefisk.

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