As a nation we’ve fallen steadily more in love with Christmas since the first half of the 19th Century. The festival itself is much older than that of course, but It was then that much of the familiar iconography of Christmas as we know it today began to take shape. Victoria’s husband Prince Albert popularised the Christmas tree, an import from his native Germany. The first commercial Christmas card appeared in 1843 and the cheery benevolence of Father Christmas also came into focus during the same period, drawing on older traditions and merging imperceptibly into the figures of Santa Claus in Dutch folklore and the ancient Christian Saint Nicholas.
Nowadays, for many people folk traditions and church services have very much taken a back seat to the commercial Christmas of box-ticking turkey dinners and shiny presents. The latter give most of us an excuse to spend money, much to the joy of the nation’s retailers, who spend months gearing us up to do exactly that with an artillery barrage of slick advertising. And mostly, that’s just fine with us. As far as it’s possible to generalise, we’re not an especially religious nation but a special day full of feasting and exchanging gifts with family has a pretty widespread appeal. Of course, many react to the crasser consumerism now commonplace at Christmas with eye-rolling disapproval and prefer to celebrate in a more traditional manner: carol services, mince pie baking and midnight mass.
But behind the baubles and the wrapping paper Christmas is fundamentally about family. At least it’s supposed to be. That’s the clear message of all those glossy ads and beloved Christmas films: getting together with family members. And in theory, that’s great. We all lead busy lives and may not see family members for months at a time. Catching up and reconnecting, pausing for breath at the end of a busy year: who could argue with that?
But….(there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there)? Not everyone is able to spend Christmas with their nearest and dearest. Perhaps they’re far away. Perhaps they’ve passed away. Perhaps you’re been separated by bitter rows. Perhaps you’ve endured divorce or separation and now have to undertake delicate diplomacy with your former spouse to see your children over the festive period. If you can see them at all.
It’s easy to very feel very left out if you don’t have somewhere to go and folks to be with, at Christmas. It’s no wonder, really, that some people find this period a very bleak time (although apparently, there’s no real evidence for the popularly held belief that suicide surges at this time of year). Remembering those less fortunate than ourselves is a noble thing to do at any time of the year, but especially now. Yes, I know it’s a little bit of a platitude. So, if you know someone who’s going to be on their own over the festive season, why not try and include them in some way? Give them a call, take them round a tin of mince pies, meet them for a drink, invite them round for turkey. Spread the joy.
Image shows the first ever commercial Christmas card, by John Callcott Horsley, 1843