The “war on Christmas” is back, an annual tradition in which politicians, journalists and religious pressure groups make up stories about Christmas traditions being banned. This is then followed by lots of boorish middle-aged men taking to their keyboards to proclaim, usually in capital letters, that Britain is a Christian country and that lefties and Muslims are destroying Christmas. Or something like that.
We’ve been spared the worst of it for the last few years after even the Daily Mail admitted that the renaming of Christmas as Winterval was an outright lie. It’s back with a vengeance this year, though, after Conservative MP Fiona Bruce claimed in parliament that Christians are afraid to mention their faith or to talk about Christmas at work. The prime minister made reassuring noises which suggested she agreed with the general sentiment while not actually agreeing with any of the claims made. Which is just as well because there is precious little evidence of workplaces banning Christmas or Christians being told they can’t talk about it.
Not to be discouraged, 9 MPs submitted an Early Day Motion to the House of Commons:
That this House reaffirms the right of every person in this country to use the phrase Happy Christmas; and encourages communities to remember and celebrate the real reason for Christmas which is the birth of Christ and to take the opportunity to enjoy time with loved ones as we a nation celebrate together.
Every year there is some sort of fuss about Christmas not being what it used to be or the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ being lost. Apparently, that phrase has a long history, both here and in the US. It got me thinking, though. Have the British ever really done God at Christmas?
When I was a kid we usually went to church on Christmas Day but, even by the 1970s, we were in a minority. I often heard people of my grandparents’ generation say that, at one time, everybody went to church on Christmas Day. I assumed that time must have been just before or just after the war. I never once doubted that they were right. My gran told me that the Salvation Army band played in the street and it was always snowing. I believed that too.
But, as ever, the horrid numbers blow away the idealised version of the past. Met Office figures suggest that, even in my gran’s youth, white Christmases were not that much more common than they are now. As for Church, by 1960 only 5 percent of the population attended Christmas Day Church of England services and that number has been falling steadily since.
Chart via Church of England.
There isn’t as much historic data on church attendance for other denominations but more recent figures suggest that it declined at a similar rate.
Source: British Religion in Numbers.
Specific data on Christmas attendances before 1960 is hard to come by too but the Church of England has figures for Easter attendance going back to 1920. Given that the number of attendees for Easter and Christmas broadly track each other after 1960, it’s reasonable to assume something similar for previous decades. Around 9 percent of the adult population was in C of E churches for Easter 1922, so the figure for Christmas was probably similar. Even in the inter-war period, when Britain had an empire and there was honey still for tea, attendance at church on Christmas Day was already a minority pastime.
Studies of religion in the First World War suggest that 27-29 percent of the adult population were members of a faith body, including non-Christian groups. As far as I can tell, the only figures on church attendance before that are from the Religious Census of 1851. This found around 60 percent of the population went to some form of Christian religious service on 30 March 1851. Because these figures were embarrassing to the religious establishment, the census was never repeated. Indeed, these numbers might even be on the high side, given that the social conventions of Victorian Britain probably encouraged some people to say they had been in church when they hadn’t.
Professor Gerry Bowler, author of Santa Claus: A Biography, reckons the decline may have started even before that. The religious Christmas, he says, was already history in the English-speaking countries by the early 19th century. In an attempt to revive it as a family-centred holiday, New York intellectuals recruited the gift-giving St.Nicholas and turned him into Santa Claus.
In England and America Christmas had become debased by 1800. It had lost much of its religious significance; it had become associated with outdoor merriment, drinking and noise-making. Its long-time association with charity had largely been forgotten. In Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, citizens complained about drunken mobs in the streets attacking black people, immigrants and the middle-class. In order to transmute this alcohol-fuelled, young male, raucous disorder into an indoor, domestic, child-centred holiday, some New York intellectuals, writers, and artists called on St. Nicholas. The New-York (note the hyphen) Historical Society took Dutch-American folklore and publicized the gift-bringing saint Sinterklaas. Poets and artists soon produced works about Santeclaus, Sandy Klaw, or Santa Claus whereby St. Nicholas lost his bishop’s clothes and got the furs once worn by the shaggy helpers like Belsnickel. He now came on December 24, not December 5 and was over the course of the 19th century, as child-rearing practices softened, less judgmental. He went through a lot of costume changes, facial hair styles, ages, and size throughout the 1800s but by 1900 he was standardized as a portly adult-sized bearded grandfather figure in red and white.
Jesus has been fighting a losing battle with him to be the main man at Christmas ever since.
All of which suggests that the decline in religious observance was underway well before the start of the 20th century and was set in by the end of the First World War. If there was a time when Christ was at the centre of Christmas and most people went to church on Christmas Day, it is now well beyond living memory.
There isn’t much to suggest that is likely to change. Religious affiliation has been in decline for decades with only around half of the population now identifying as Christian.
Religious Affiliation in Britain, 1983-2014
Chart via British religion in Numbers, based on British Social Attitudes Survey.
Columnists can write articles, self-styled traditionalists can huff and politicians can put down motions in parliament but none of it will make much difference.
Perhaps the most succinct comment on all this was a clever pun by Tennessee priest Julias McCarter:
Ad vent: When some Christians complain about the War on Christmas, even as they participate in the season’s commercialization.
— Julius + (@juliusmccarter) December 1, 2016
However much the venters vent, the ads get longer every year.
With the help of TV period dramas, we cling to a stylised view of ‘Christmas as was’ when the band played, it snowed, everyone wished each other Merry Christmas in the street, we didn’t have ‘all this commercialism’ and the churches were full on Christmas Day. But none of us can really remember anything even close to that and our grandparents couldn’t either, whatever they might have told us. The churches have been empty for 100 years. It’s a long time since most of us did God at Christmas.
With that, I shall wish you all a happy Christmas. Celebrate it however you like and enjoy it. I certainly intend to. Who knows, I might even go to church.