Can we hold off on the Christmas celebrations until Christmas?

If we do the celebrations in advance of the event, well, it does rather take the edge off things

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. In the second week of November Santa came to call on a big hardware-cum-garden shop in Arklow, Co Wicklow, bringing gifts and treats, and the excitement was such, by all accounts, that the road was blocked and the managers had to lock the shop door to the punters. Still a busy bee the following weekend, Santa dropped in on a downtown shopping centre.

This, folks, was early to mid-November. The feast of St Nicholas – need I say, the original Santa Claus? – happens on December 6th. What’s going on? It’s a hoary old trope that Christmas comes earlier and earlier, but this year the retail sector surpassed itself. The Thursday before Halloween there was Christmas merchandise for sale in a big London branch of Marks & Spencer. That is festive tinsel and Nutcracker dolls on offer at the same time as pumpkin motif chocolates. Gross.

Advent has only just begun and yet the Christmas season is already under way. To say we’re ahead of ourselves hardly does justice to it. Advent is meant to be the run-up to Christmas, the season of preparation when we get ourselves and our households in order for the feast, which starts officially on Christmas Eve and goes on for 12 whole days until Epiphany on January 6th.

Yet we have somehow managed to upend the whole process so the celebrations happen for at least a month before the event. As my cousin (who invites Santa to open her parish craft fair on the third weekend of November) observes, “it’s trying to get ahead of the competition – getting people to spend their money with you before they spend it elsewhere”.


Advent had, and in churchy circles still has, a specific character. It was meditative, expectant. In terms of the liturgy it was anticipating the coming of Christ as a baby at Christmas, with an eye to the Second Coming, that is, in judgment. Formerly it was a period of fasting rather than feasting.

As Annie Gray, a food historian, observes about the season pre-Reformation in her book At Christmas We Feast: “The feast element [of Christmas] was particularly welcome, coming as it did after a long and dreary element of fast. Advent then was one of the two big fast periods, when no animal derived products could be consumed. Twenty-four days of fish, vegetables and almond milk (the latter proving that there is little truly new in food).”

I’ve just been sent a copy of a cookbook Nistisima, by an excellent Greek Cypriot food writer Georgina Hayden, about Orthodox fasting food where she observes that Advent is still one of the long fasting periods in the Eastern Church, when you can’t eat meat or dairy, though fish is allowed up to December17th, and the rules are only relaxed on saints’ days (presumably including St Nicholas).

Orthodox Christians make Catholics look like cissies when it comes to fasting. But here different rules apply: before avian flu it was turkey dinners at office Christmas party, and it’s still the case that everyone puts away their bodyweight in sausage rolls and mulled wine.

The upshot is when Christmas finally arrives it’s already over, and right in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas we start the New Year diet. Not every country does it; I’ve just been in Italy where you have Advent fairs (the place to buy your crib figures), but there’s a blessed absence of premature festivities.

There’s something troubling going on here. Our retail-led anticipation of the next season while we’re still in the previous one suggests a perpetual restlessness. It’s as if we’re no longer capable of inhabiting the present moment. If we have Advent for getting things ready, making pudding, icing cakes, lighting Advent candles and, yes, buying presents, it creates a feeling of anticipation. If we do the celebrations in advance of the event, if Santa has arrived six weeks beforehand, well, it does rather take the edge off things.

The upshot is that just as we should be unleashing the festive season, it starts to peter out. Properly done there should be a crescendo of festivity from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, and then a slow decrescendo through January (when only fools would give up meat and drink) until the February 2nd, Candlemas. That makes psychological sense.

This is our old friend, cultural appropriation. Consumer capitalism hasn’t just stolen Christmas, but sucked it out from inside. It’s a phenomenon very much of our time. I bet the Romans didn’t start celebrating Saturnalia early, nor did the pagan Scandinavians bring in the Yule log six weeks in advance.

So, can we hold off on the Christmas celebrations until Christmas? Or at least keep a little in reserve? It’ll make the actual season swing when the time comes.

Melanie McDonagh is an Irish journalist working in London.