A Christmas book that’s just far too cynical

The Choir of King's College Cambridge conduct a rehearsal of their Christmas Eve service of 'A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols' - a tradition more recent than is often supposed (Carl Court/Getty Images)

The first reading at Mass on Sunday was very striking; at least, it struck a kind of sympathetic fear in my heart. It was from the first book of Maccabees and described a situation where, surrounded by a hostile pagan peoples, many true believers i.e. Israelites, decided to “reach an understanding” with the society surrounding them. They “abandoned the holy covenant, submitting to the heathen rule as willing slaves of impiety.”

It is very easy to do the same today; whenever we go along with the dominant fad of the day, we forget we are the successors of those Israelites i.e. we are Christians, and thus have to stand apart – though not aloof – from the world. I have just been reading Christmas: a Biography by Judith Flanders, a book describing all the jolly legends, myths, false traditions and paraphernalia that are now attached to Christmas and which, according to the author, have made it the ragtag bacchanalia that it is today in the western world.

As a cultural investigation the book is fascinating to read, with many diverting anecdotes, such as that the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols sung at King’s College chapel on Christmas Eve, was started in Truro Cathedral in 1880 by the then Bishop of Truro. In 1918 it was copied by King’s College, Cambridge and taken up by the BBC in 1928. Yet “somehow by 1931 the thirteen-year-old concert had become considered to be a tradition of the ages, according to the BBC’s publicity material; by 1939 it had aged exponentially: ‘The festival has been held since the chapel was built nearly 500 years ago’”.

Nonetheless, behind all the solid research undertaken by the author on the provenance of Christmas stockings, wreaths, mistletoe, trees, a fat old man coming down the chimney and other topics, is a subliminal subtext: that the Nativity of Our Lord, celebrated by Christians worldwide on December 25, also presents a few difficulties in terms of dates and settings – and thus credibility. We learn that the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke are historically “problematic”; the actual existence of St Nicholas (Santa Claus) is highly questionable; and that “The focal point of medieval Christmas for the majority was not the birth of Christ, but eating and drinking and entertainment.” How can the author be so certain of this – or not realise that a deep faith can coexist merrily with festivities celebrated at the appropriate time?

Most ironic is the author’s usage of “BCE” and “CE” (“Before the Common Era” and “Common Era”) rather than recognise that the supreme division of history indicated by this very odd modern timeline has come about only because of the birth of Christ – whose name is plainly there in the very word “Christmas”. If the long-held division of history into BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) is so unimportant, why acknowledge it at all, especially by a meaningless kind of neologism?

I might add that according to my CTS New Daily Missal, the entry for 6th December, his feast-day, runs: “St Nicholas (fourth century) was born perhaps at Patara (now in Turkey) and became bishop of Myra…” Perhaps we should all jettison the shiny new toys we give children at Christmas and just put shiny chocolate coins in their shoes on 6th December instead? There is a very old story attached to this practice.