Capturing the magic of Christmas past

‘Baby Jesus may have kicked off this Christmas business, but it was John Logie Baird who introduced harmony to the festive season’

Slade the keepers of the Christmas spirit

Slade the keepers of the Christmas spirit


Some news report I’ve just made up details the recent discovery of a fifth-century parchment decrying the decline of traditional Yuletide. It’s written in whatever the heck Celts used to speak, but a demotic translation demonstrates how little has changed for the recreational whinger.

“Oh, it’s all baby Jesus and magi and warbling these awful new ‘carol’ things,” the imaginary document doesn’t actually say. “When I was a lad, we still understood the true meaning of Yule. We’d dance nakedly round standing stones, bite the thorax from unworthy slaves and bathe cravenly in their spurting blood. I suppose I’m a stick in the mud. But I still prefer the old ways.”

The point to this fantasy is that every generation imagines the Christmas of their childhood is the “real” Christmas. None of those before were quite fully formed. All those after are somewhat corrupted and compromised. No doubt some middle-aged Victorians found the version of Christmas invented by Charles Dickens unspeakably vulgar. Who wants plum pudding when you can have turnips soaked in candied ale (or whatever)?

Of course, almost everybody is wrong about this. Christmas traditions are as subject to incremental reinvention as are the rules of grammar and vocabulary. Virtually every generation is fooling itself when it argues that the standardised model for Christmas is the one that existed when they were eight years old.

That “virtually” and the earlier “almost” are, however, there for a reason. The exceptions to these dictates are those people who sang their first carols in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Everybody else is talking rubbish. But, as top boffins would surely confirm if they set their distracted minds to it, Christmas’s spiritual centre of gravity can be definitively located somewhere between 1971 and 1975. Just as American cinema reached its archetypal zenith in 1939 – the year of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach – the jolly season achieved perfection in the era of Watergate and clackers. We can be more precise. On December 7th, 1973, Slade introduced the world to Merry Xmas Everybody. Now, Christmas was complete. All we had to look forward to was decline.

Mr Holder and his Black Country mob cemented their position as avatars of the season on the 1973 Christmas edition of Top of the Pops. This is significant. The reasons why this era’s Christmas stands as the definitive version are not – or not directly – to do with pop music, jumbo flares or glam rock. It’s the television, stupid.

Two contradictory clichés supposedly tell us why this season is so magnificent. “We only do it for the children,” some say. “It’s all about family,” others say. Now, obviously, these hypothetical children are, most likely, members of your (or, certainly, somebody else’s) family. So, in that sense, the two things go together. But the last thing most children want to do on a bank holiday is share poultry with deaf Auntie Eileen, drunk Uncle Peter and the psychopathic adult cousin whose half-way house shuts down for the festive season. They’re desperate to break free and blast aliens with their Zappo! ray-gun or make rude fetishes out of plastic bricks. The tortured perversion of “fun” that attends the reading out of riddles while wearing paper hats only reinforces growing suspicions that families are terrible things. The eventual, inevitable decay of the conversation – accelerated by too much big-value claret and Swedish port – into a savage disinterment of ancient grievances reminds us why such massed gatherings only happen once a year.

Happily, the rise of Christmas television through the 1960s and 1970s offered some relief from the little battles that had hitherto characterised the season. Lovely, lovely TV did more than that. It actually managed to bring the various warring factions together.

Forget midnight mass (or whatever your religion is having). The “big film” on Christmas afternoon properly united the family. Never mind that ancient dispute concerning a bequeathed Georgian gravy boat. It’s The Great Escape. It’s The Towering Inferno. After that there’s Morecambe and Wise. Baby Jesus may have kicked off this Christmas business, but it was John Logie Baird who introduced harmony to the festive season.

Then it all began to fall apart. Video was the first nail in proper Christmas’s sorry coffin. There was no reason to get excited about a showing of ET when it had been available on tape for months. The channels began to multiply. The ways of watching changed. Now, virtually every member of the family is carrying a television about in his or her breast pocket. You hear what I’m saying? Technology has ruined the traditional family Christmas.

Oh well. I suppose there’s still Doctor Who.

Not now, mum. I’ve it set up on the Sky Plus. Bah, humbug.

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