Long life

Without Jesus and with less Santa, what does Christmas mostly consist of?

Food, drink, presents, television, and searching for bargains on the internet

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

More than ever this year I find friends planning to go abroad for Christmas, some to countries such as India where the sun shines and Christmas is barely celebrated at all. I can see why. The goodwill and good cheer that the festival is intended to foster is all too often outweighed by the stress and anxiety it causes. This has been the case for years, but it gets worse with the passage of time. More couples divorce, more families break up, and Christmas tends not to heal such wounds but to aggravate them.

The preparations for Christmas are more than joyless; they are soul-destroying. Try visiting Oxford Street at this time of year; or rather, don’t. There is frenzy in the air, and it can’t be attributed to philanthropy. The people fighting in department stores on Black Friday were not, I think, looking for nice presents for their children, but were being driven by some kind of mindless greed. It was, as George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in the Mail on Sunday, without ‘context’, just an orgy of acquisition, gratuitously whipped up by the retail industry.

Black Friday, Dr Carey said, ‘is of a piece with the reverence we now collectively show for the seasonal advertising campaigns — the TV commercials by Marks & Spencer and John Lewis for example — whose arrival we seem to anticipate with bated breath’. With the original purpose of Christmas now widely forgotten, new festive symbols, such as TV commercials, have had to be invented. Christmas has become like Winston Churchill’s rejected pudding; it has no theme.

Jesus Christ is no longer what Christmas is mainly about. A poll has found that only 20 per cent of the British population will be attending church this Christmas, and many of these will be people who never normally go to church at all. Of the young, only a minority now declare themselves believers. Soon it will be a minority of everyone. There is no halt to Christianity’s decline.

But even the main folkloric symbol of Christmas, Santa Claus, is losing ground. Santa Claus may be a name based on the historic 4th-century Saint Nicholas of Myra, reputedly a compulsive gift-giver, but in his modern portly incarnation, with his sleigh and his reindeer, there is nothing religious about him.

I doubt if there are many children over five who really believe in him, though I except that there are lots who still pretend to, so as to squeeze as many presents as possible out of their parents. But it was reported even ten years ago that British children were beginning to turn against Santa Claus, whom they associated with smelly, drink-sodden old men sitting in plastic grottoes in department stores. The more recent panic about paedophilia can only have made parents more wary of letting children nestle upon their knees.

In 2005 Santa’s leading impersonators held an emergency meeting at Alton Towers in Staffordshire to discuss the decline in their business. They took all the blame for their troubles. They were too often rude and loutish and drunk, they agreed. Children recoiled from them. More and more department stores rejected them. So they drew up a code of conduct covering such things as personal hygiene and alcohol consumption, but also setting rules about their appearance so that they would look more like each other and fool children more easily. I don’t know to what extent the code has been obeyed, but in one matter it hasn’t been. Concerned that Santas were often too thin to inspire confidence, they decreed that they should be generally fatter. As it has turned out, according to press reports, they have been growing thinner.

So now, without Jesus and with less Santa, what does Christmas mostly consist of? Food, drink, presents, television and searching for bargains on the internet. It is also imbued with nostalgia for Christmases past, the focus of this changing with the passage of time. We used to look back wistfully to when Christmas was celebrated as a religious festival. Then we looked back to a time when television programmes were more decorous and commercialism less frantic. Soon, maybe, we will be thinking of the old days of jolly old Santa Claus. But there seems no doubt that Christmas will survive, though in quite what form it is hard to know.

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  • Teacher

    Two weeks off in the middle of winter. What’s not to like?

    • Bonkim

      No need to call it Christian – that is the point.

    • Chris Morriss

      I’d rather have two weeks off in May!

  • kittydeer

    ‘There is no halt to Christianity’s decline’. That has been said many times and in the bleakest of days Irish monks persevered with copying the gospels and the light of Christianity remained alive in Europe and eventually beyond. Dark days are back with a vengeance but for people of faith nothing is impossible.

    • LordJustin

      Yes. All they need to do is follow the lessons of today’s Islamists, abolish education for the masses, and we’ll be back in the Dark Ages in no time.

      • mpolito

        I didn’t realize the modern British education system was so spectacular.

      • Bonkim

        You said it – the Monasteries were the repositories of known knowledge and the illiterate peasants followed what the Holy orders dictated, worked in their fields – no different from the Lord of the manor bidding his serfs to do all the work whilst he enjoyed life.

    • BFS

      Yes kittydeer. It makes me think of a quote from G.K.Chesterton:

      “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.”

      • red2black

        The mockery pours out in equal measure between those who believe in God and those who don’t.

    • Bonkim

      Do people believe in the Christian Mumbo Jumbo? That is the question.

      • kittydeer

        The answer is simply that people who believe in the Christian message would never describe it as mumbo jumbo. You either believe or you don’t.

        • Bonkim

          Agree – any religion is Mumbo Jumbo to me.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Interesting that there’s only one person in the Bible with the name “Jesus”.

    • LordJustin

      And several million in Spain and the Americas

    • red2black

      There are lots of instances in The Bible where there is only one person with a particular name.

      • Bonkim

        There were others but they did not do wonders to be counted.

        • red2black

          It wouldn’t have been much of a story without them.

          • And what a boring story it is. I can’t believe the claims about how wonderful, literary, zzzzzzzzz……

          • red2black

            Sleeping through ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’? Disgraceful! (tee hee).
            Even so, there are far more interesting things about The Bible than ‘the storyline’. I’m not religious, but…

          • Yes, I’ve been told (the person I live with studies political philosophy). But I tried reading Genesis both critically and with an open mind, and it simply annoyed the h=ll out of me. How could G-d not be honest about his rules and then be angry when they were broken? How could innocents know in advance that such rules are law and that eternal punishment would follow their breaking? In short, the Bible begins with a cruelly irrational god that I am supposed to see as good, wonderful, and merciful.

          • Damaris Tighe

            In the early days of the Christian church there was a theologian called Marcion who wanted the OT to be left out of the Christian Bible. I often wish he’d succeeded. But I can also understand the justification for keeping it. So much in the NT (eg ‘David’s line’, ‘root of Jesse’) can only be understood by referencing the OT.

            You’re right about the idea of God in the OT but most of it is immature & entangled with pagan myth. A lot of it seems to be a harsh patriarchal religion’s argument with the native & older goddess cults. The New Testament is supposed to be just that, new, a final word on & correction of the old.

        • It’s all a load of bollocks, anyway!

    • Bonkim

      But millions of Jesus’ in the Phillippines, S America, and Africa though.

      • Jackthesmilingblack


    • freddiethegreat

      No there isn’t. A transliteration is Y’shua (YHWH saves). Other transliterations into English are ‘Josua’ and ‘Hosea’. It seemed to be quite a common name – there is at least one other ‘Jesus’ in the New Testament.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I asked the Muslim chick at the Post Office if she had an address for Mohammed as I wanted to send him a Christmas card. When you’ve got faith who needs proof, logic, common sense …
    Jack, Malaysia

    • LordJustin

      I’m guessing she kept her composure, sold you a card, envelope and stamp, and reflected that she was now £3 closer to moving up in the world – away from rude people like you.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Take a gate, take a fence. Some people, sensitive.

    • red2black

      Jack Daniel’s is only 40% proof, but that’s proof enough for anyone.
      (ho ho ho)

  • Bonkim

    ‘There is no halt to Christianity’s decline.’ Celebrating Christmas or not has nothing to do with Christianity. Religion is a con-trick and now rejected by most thinking people.

    • Paddy S

      Or rejected by a minority of non thinking people, you could also state.

  • beenzrgud

    Christmas is easy if you buy all the gifts online and have them delivered directly to their intended target. You don’t even have to waste time visiting people.

  • LordJustin

    Religious people will find a religious meaning in everything, not just Christmas. Since the introduction of compulsory education above the age of 11, the rest of us grow out of it when we cast aside other childish thoughts.

  • red2black

    Gift-giving at Christmas seems rooted in North European paganism, along with the Biblical Three Wise Men bearing gifts; the Magi (magic, magicians?) who followed the Star (an alignment of planets, of great astrological significance). The meaning of the gifts they brought can also be interpreted in different ways. The origin of Santa has been claimed as Odin ‘the gift-giver’, among many others. The world can be viewed in poetic and symbolic ways, as well as scientific and rational ones.

  • rtj1211

    I have always made a habit of visiting Oxford Street solely on 24th December. Over the years, I have found that the crowds are less, the things sought after available and the time imperative of decision-making conducive to finishing shopping briskly.

    But then, I always was a contrarian and, in terms of shopping without stress, that is a very good thing to be……..

  • Samson

    It seems profoundly appropriate in this neo-liberal utopia that a yearly advert has taken the place of Jesus. God bless the corporations, every one.

  • Paddy S

    We are witnessing Western decline and the triumph of cultural Marxism, and the deliberate white washing of our Judeo Christian past. We have replaced it with drinking, hedonism, drugs, liberalism, environmentalism, degeneracy, speech codes and deliberate destruction of our values.
    But Christianity is thriving still in the world and maybe it could come back here again in several generations for as the famous passage goes from St. John’s Gospel: a light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it…..

  • Roger Hudson

    My favourite carol ‘Good king Wenceslas’ has only got the date (feast of Steven, 26th Dec ) tying it to Christmas but it’s message that you will be blessed if you help the poor is everlasting.

  • MichtyMe

    As youth in Scotland, in a more religious epoch, I worked on Xmas day it not being a public holiday and not much celebrated. In an earlier age, when Scotland was a very devout place, observing Xmas could get you into serious trouble.
    I plead that we ban Xmas and return Scotland to its traditional christian roots.

    • Kennybhoy

      “And the price o’ their souls, was a Gospel so cold
      It would freeze up the joy in their hearts…”

    • Laguna Beach Fogey

      Or we could ban Puritan Christianity (and Islam) and celebrate Christmas and Yuletide.

  • A midwinter festival transcends cultures in most seasonal regions of the world and long predates Christmas as a Christian festival.

    Mind you, if the religious celebrations haven’t merely been replaced by consumerism, but the ever-increasing, annoying, boring, unoriginal nagging about consumerism, then I think I’d actually settle for being dragged to church in the morning every time.

  • lakelander

    I was sick of (commercial) Christmas by about November 18th. Wish it would just go away.

    • Father Onabit

      Me too!! Seasonal psychosis seems to start earlier each year. I don’t get involved with all the hype, simply letting it pass me by, bemused by the frantic shoppers who would kill for the last stalk of sprouts. With queues at supermarkets looking more like airport check in desks, I will do my shopping online or live on baked beans thank you very much :/

  • Bonkim

    The Bible forbids glorifying individuals and hedonistic practices. Santa Claus, saints, etc, are unchristian, Christmas as practised is wholly pagan and nothing to do with Christianity. Fundamental Christians steer away from such man-made celebrations.

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    There is always the possibility that Christmas will come to resemble its Pagan origins in the Yuletide festivals. The ‘re-paganisation’ of Christmas might be a good thing.

    Ghosts of Christmases Past:


  • The birth of a king is seen to be important. There are folk who can be counted on to see what happened just over 2000 years ago, in the vicinity of Bethlehem, as the first arrival of the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

    The remnant can be counted upon to do more than lift a finger to seek after the real impact of Christmas.

  • Swanky

    I’m totally perplexed. How can you in Britain have a ‘Black Friday’ when you don’t have Thanksgiving? My understanding, from those native Americans that claim to know, is that ‘Black Friday’ (the one I hear about) happened because American families with nothing else in common decided the next day to go shopping. In their multi-millions. Don’t tell me that Guy Fawkes has the same effect! Besides, the American Thanksgiving (as opposed to the Canadian one, which I have also celebrated many times) is in late November, while Guy Fawkes is at the beginning.

    Sometimes being multinational makes my head swim.

    P. S. Jesus was never ‘the reason for the season’ in my life. It was all about family, the magic of the mysteriously full stocking at the end of the bed, the tree, the wonderful dinner and sweets, the singing around the piano, Handel’s Messiah and Christmas music on the stereo, and the hope that one day I’d live in England again….

    On a less personal note, this article is all over the place. Either Christmas is headed for oblivion or it’s actually a robust festivity and a gripping institution with a certain elasticity according to the times. Make up your mind, Chancellor. As for the religion: don’t understate the harm that religion has caused. Overall, I am glad to live in a secular age, post-Communism (except for those blasted outposts such as Cuba that still hang on).

    • Chris Morriss

      British retailers will try out any gimmick if they think it will give them a sales boost. “Black Friday ” (why so called?) has only really appeared in the past few years. Can’t make head or tail of it myself.
      Don’t you get back over here at all for the occasional visit because of family or other commitments? It’s changed for the worse here over the past 15 years or so, with large parts of the south-east and some of the large northern urban areas being quite unpleasant. Areas like the South-West, the Welsh borders, Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales / Lake District are still lovely if a bit busy at peak periods.

      • Swanky

        Thanks for the (non)illumination. Sounds as though they are aping America (nothing new there!).

        I haven’t been back in nearly 11 years, which seems a lifetime — but I have a dog and we just don’t have anyone we could entrust her with during a holiday. Believe me, it’s a bit I’ve chafed at. But one doesn’t know how much one will love the dog until one has it — and she’s worth the sacrifice.

        I lived in the Weald. I would hope that that hasn’t changed much, if at all. If it has, I don’t know where I’d come back to! Do you know anything about Norfolk? My richest relatives have just relocated to there. But I hardly talk to my family so can’t ask them : )

        • Chris Morriss

          ‘fraid I don’t know either of those areas very well. The Weald must be getting a lot of pressure from an expanding London to the N, and the increasing industrialisation of the corridor to the Channel Tunnel. Norfolk has its charms, especially if you’re a small boat sailor, but if the weather is anything like Cambridgeshire, where I lived for a while, the bitter east winds in winter will have you longing for warmer climes!

          • So the Weald it is, then…. Merry Christmas!

      • Swanky

        P. S. The reason it’s called ‘Black Friday’ is that, in America, the stampedes and hoards of shoppers have been so severe — imagine a football match and fans out of control — that people have been injured and even killed (trampled to death, mainly).

  • thomasaikenhead


    You and your elite circle of metropolitan, chattering class friends may be contemplating jetting off to India for Christmas but for the vast majority of the population, even the majority of readers of The Spectator, that is imply not an option.

    Christmas, in this time of austerity, is more relevant than ever to ordinary people.

    Your faux-sophisticated, jejeune and jaded attitude may play well in the rareified social circles that you move in but elsewhere British people grapple with poverty and hardship and injustice on a daily basis and find that Christmas is an opportunity to look back on the year and reflect and, where possible, feel for their lives and opportunities.

  • Suriani

    A process of inane infantilisation. The mystery of God Incarnate becomes a baby shower. The Pascal mystery a celebration of all things fluffy and chocolatey….and as for “halloween”. Goes hand in hand with the systemic cultural decline of the West. A stable needing cleansing.

  • Michelle Johnstone
  • Christian

    As Nietzsche observed, we will do absolutely anything to avoid looking into the abyss. He predicted commercialism as an end in itself and soit has come to pass. I consume therefore I am.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    When you do fly the coop to sidestep all that Christmas BS, split early, say the end of November and stay away until April. That way you don’t have to dump all those cards in the trash.
    Correct response to “Happy Christmas” is, “Bah, humbug”.