Before Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus in December, North Europeans held a pagan festival, Yule, at the winter solstice. This prepared them for their cold dark winters.
They decorated with fir trees, Yule logs, holly, ivy and mistletoe. They had animal sacrifices, feasts and toasts to Odin.
At that time, the birth of Jesus was an insignificant day in the Christian calendar. Crucifixion and resurrection were more important.
Christian missionaries met hostile opposition in Northern Europe. Celebrating Christmas was part of the priestly plot, to win converts and postpone painful martyrdom. Unfortunately, by modern times paganism had vanished, or perhaps not.
Christmas Past – UK in the early 1950s
After WW2 the United Kingdom was bankrupt, due to the cost of war and responsibility for feeding a quarter of starving Germany.
The money available for Christmas celebrations was limited. Real fir trees and parties for family and friends survived. Christians had added St Nicholas. He morphed into father Christmas and was supposed to come down the chimney to leave presents. He travelled the skies on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
I remember, being excited because of the expected presents. We decorated about four weeks before Christmas. Decorations were home-made from crepe paper and festooned the ceiling. We also had Christmas cards hung about on strings. Phones were rare and cards were how you wished relatives and friends a happy season.
The four weeks before was called "Advent". The nuns used to put up an advent calendar, at school. We opened a door each day to see a small picture of the annunciation and then other Christian events, saints etc. Nearer the day, people would come to the door to sing traditional carols. We gave them special pies, “Mince Pies”.
The school had a nativity play. All the parents had to see their little darlings pretending to be Joseph, Mary, Angels etc. Later as a parent you experienced the full horror of being in the audience. Forced smiles all round.
On Christmas eve, we left a minced pie and a glass of port or sherry for Father Christmas. When we children woke very early, the first thing was to see if he had taken it and left presents.
Presents were often second hand. One year, I received a pedal car that my father had refurbished. Another year, there was an electric train. Sweets and chocolate were common presents.
The family would go to mass in the morning. About 3pm, we had a feast. In those days alcohol was very expensive, a week's wages for a bottle of whisky. Only later, did we get a bottle of wine for the entire family.
If there was a TV, the family would listen to the Queen’s Christmas speech. Otherwise, heard it on the radio.
We would entertain ourselves and family friends with carol singing, playing instruments, board games, charades and other silly games. The celebrations lasted for maybe a week.
Writing this made me sad. All the adult friends and family from those Christmases are dead. They were lovely people.
Christmas Present-UK 2017
Now, the UK is a wealthy country. Few are practicing Christians, so very few go to church. Technology has changed everything.
Families are smaller and often live far apart. My daughter just skyped. Her daughter's school had real reindeer and a snow machine for their Christmas event
People drink lots of alcohol throughout the period. Decorations are bought and very elaborate. Few send physical cards, so there are less to put up.
Advent calendars cost $30 each. Instead of Christian symbols, they have chocolate or toys behind each door.
Enormous piles of presents for each child cost a fortune. You cannot move around the room for toys.
Apart for the meal, each child will be watching a different TV, playing video games or texting friends.
Has the festival lost something? It has, but few care because everyone is drunk.