Christmas – is there a traditional way of celebrating it?

Revd Adam Dickens, Anglican Chaplain at the University of Derby, discusses whether there is a traditional way of celebrating Christmas and where the tradition originated from.


So is there a traditional way of celebrating Christmas?

It’s an interesting question, especially for those of us in Britain, because Christmas is the one religious festival that is celebrated by the vast majority of the population, regardless of any faith conviction that people have. It combines a rich mixture of things from a whole range of countries and traditions, interweaving features from ordinary life in which people have a good time, with certain religious characteristics.

Amongst the central features of our celebration, we come together as a family to enjoy each other’s company whilst sharing seasonal food, be it turkey which appeared in Britain in the 16th century, or Christmas pudding with its medieval origins. The singing of carols in various public settings as well as in the context of Christian worship, with church attendances increasing significantly, including many of those who wouldn’t normally go to church. There are appeals for those who are most vulnerable in society, with charities concerned with social deprivation experiencing peak levels of support around this time of year.

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, with its transformational tale of Scrooge, played a key role in pricking the conscience of the nation in Victorian Britain, and our obligations to the poor at this time of year remain strong today. There are the best forgotten office or work-related parties at which people drink probably more than is wise and embarrass themselves; and the commercial world goes into overdrive, trying to capitalise on the season from as early as possible.

Christmas in Britain links a great party together with an acknowledgement of God and when seen in a world context, makes it a very typical religious festival.

A religious tale

So how did we get to where we are with our modern British Christmas? Of course its religious roots lie in the birth of Jesus who, for Christians, is God born amongst us and coming to share his life with us. Interestingly, we don’t know exactly when Jesus was born and other than giving an account of his birth, there is nothing in the New Testament about the emergence of a festival around it.

Its origins probably come from the third century, with the Church wanting to celebrate Christ’s birth and choosing the end of December, the darkest time of the year, because other festivals were happening at that time and it sought to offer its own distinctive perspective, with Christ’s birth symbolising a source of light in the darkness.

People continue to connect with the idea of a helpless baby having a profound significance for the world, a new birth offering hope and possibility.

You can’t celebrate Christmas without a tree

Of course, Christmas has also absorbed some of the older pagan features of ancient winter festivals. The origins of the Christmas tree for instance, lie in the pagan tradition of northern Europe, in which an evergreen tree was brought out of the forest and into people’s home for a little while, a symbol of on-going life in the dead of winter. It was introduced to Britain by Queen Victoria’s husband, the German Prince Albert, a tradition that was then keenly followed by the British public who placed presents for their children at its foot.

The creation of Santa Claus

Meanwhile the hopeful arrival of Santa for children has its roots in New York from the Dutch tradition linked to St Nicholas, the patron saint of children. In the late eighteenth century, Americans were trying to create a festival calendar for themselves against the background of a Puritanical culture that didn’t go in for festivals.

Christmas is a real medley of features but its celebration each year witnesses to the reality that we are part of a rhythm that continues well beyond our own lives. It is a vital part in a story that binds society and the generations together. And that, of course, is why we have it.

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