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Dec. 20, 2018

University of Kent historian explores the evolution of Christmas

University of KentAn expert from the School of History at the University of Kent has been looking into the evolution of Christmas over the years.

Professor Mark Connelly, a Professor of Modern British Military History at the University of Kent and an expert on ‘traditional’ Christmas, has concluded that Christmas is a chameleon, having evolved over the centuries and taking on various influences throughout the years to make it the celebration that we experience today.

Professor Connelly explains, “In large part, its success is due to its amazing ability to adapt and thus maintain its cultural supremacy. This throws up another important point: the extent to which Christmas has evolved into a cultural phenomenon distinct from its religious root. Even here, the riddle that is Christmas refuses an easy answer, for the Christian aspect of Christmas is itself a grafting onto a much older set of traditions answering important human needs.”

Continuing, he says, “The early Church paid no attention to the birth of Christ, which was a mere prologue detail to his ministry, death and resurrection. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, it competed with a range of pagan festivals and observances. Of particular significance to the evolution of Christmas was the prevalence of mid-winter festivals centred on the themes of regeneration, indulgence, light and inversions of order.”

Having explored the representation of Christmas through medieval and Tudor times, Professor Connelly then explored Victorian Christmas, saying, “While there is no doubting the fact that the Victorians, partly inspired by Dickens, were fascinated by the celebration of Christmas, rather than invent it lock, stock and barrel, they reinvigorated it and brought together the many, some decaying, Christmas customs and threw themselves into the season in a way not seen before. Being a nation of manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers, it was not long before Victorians realised that the season with its emphasis on generosity and hospitality could be exploited for commercial possibilities.”

Christmas continued to thrive in Victorian times and beyond with the growth of manufacturing and particularly the evolvement of department stores in the UK. Then, years of austerity following on from the Second World War reduced the commercialism of Christmas slightly although not all together.

Nowadays, Christmas as a commercial and celebratory festival is back on track and an important time of the year for many. Professor Connelly says, “Despite this remorseless commercialisation and despite the immense changes British society has experienced over the last fifty or so years, Christmas remains a key focal point of the year. In a world which seems to spin with ever greater speed meaning more and more people feel disoriented and dislocated, Christmas appears a constant and reassuring example that some things never change.”

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Content added on 20th December 2018. 

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