There is no doubt that Christmas is the biggest seasonal festival of the Western world, and is getting steadily bigger. In Britain, increasingly, the working life of the nation closes down between 24 December and 2 January, and a preliminary festive season is setting in, commencing with Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes' Night and then running through one and a half months in which streets and shopping centres fill with decorations and local towns stage carnivals. Nor is this dedication to winter merrymaking anything new, or even an invention of the Victorians. In a book which I published about the history of Britain's festivals over 10 years ago, the Christmas period took up a quarter of the entire space: it has been the time of celebration, ritual and folklore, par excellence, for hundreds and hundreds of years.
But just hang on a moment! Of course we can do without Christmas itself, as the same history amply proves. The Scots abolished it as a public holiday for over 250 years, between the 17th and the 20th centuries. The English got rid of it for 11 years during their own Puritan Revolution, and it had almost died out again in the late Georgian period, so that it was indeed the Victorians who restored it to glory. The ancient Romans did nothing in or around 25 December, putting that in a week-long gap between two other festivals, while the early Christians themselves celebrated Christ's Nativity either in May or September.
Most of our actual British Christmas customs the tree, the turkey, the stocking, the cards, Santa Claus have only appeared since 1840. Kissing under the mistletoe started not with the Druids but around the time of Jane Austen. So how come the festive season is so timeless and ubiquitous, and yet Christmas itself so expendable?
The easy answer is that what we actually can't do without, in Europe, is a big midwinter festival. The Scots got rid of Christmas, only to build up Hogmanay. Christmas was dying in England around 1800 because Twelfth Night had largely taken its place. The Romans didn't need it because of those two festivals on either side: Saturnalia, when they did lots of Christmassy things such as eating, boozing and playing games, and Kalendae, when they celebrated the New Year. It's food for thought that the shiver that most people feel as the clock ticks towards midnight on New Year's Eve is older than Christmas itself. Can we even say something about what people did in prehistory? Well, yes. The three greatest Neolithic monuments of Ireland, Scotland and England the massive tombs of Newgrange and Maes Howe, and Stonehenge itself are all aligned on the midwinter sunrise or sunset, showing how important this festival was even in the Stone Age.
The trappings of the modern Christmas may be relatively recent, but the basic observation of the festive season hasn't changed since history began. It depends on certain basic human needs. One is the obvious: for light, warmth, greenery and merrymaking in the darkest, coldest and most dismal time of the year. Ever since records begin which in the case of Rome is way before Christianity people have reacted to it by taking a break at the darkest point in which to feast, booze, party, light and heat up their homes, and bring in whatever plants are still green to decorate their walls. For many centuries before mistletoe and Christmas trees were used, northern Europeans fetched in holly and ivy. It is also the traditional beginning of the new calendar year for most if not all of the peoples of Europe, and so a great time for blessing, of people, homes and farms, to bring them good fortune in the year to come. This is where Christmas presents come from, having been New Year's gifts until the 19th century; they were handed to friends and family to make them feel lucky. In the West Country some farmers still bless their apple orchards at midwinter, in the custom known as wassailing. Originally, their cornfields and animals would be blessed as well. All this was excellent therapy, to help people get through the lowest point of the year and to feel as good as possible in anticipation of the return of light and warmth. Today the lights on the tree and the parcels piled under it sum up this ancient tradition in a single view.
Another timeless need of the season is for charity. This was, after all, a period when the poorest, oldest and feeblest members of a community would become physically vulnerable to hunger and cold. Their morale would take a further dent if they saw their neighbours making merry all round them and were unable to share in any of it. If they then died, this would not be good for the consciences of their survivors; if they lived, they could bear nasty grudges. Hence, from the time that evidence survives, midwinter was a great time for the giving of food, drink or money to the less fortunate. In the Middle Ages people known as hogglers or hognels in each parish would often volunteer to collect and distribute them. In addition, poor women and children would go from door to door asking for such gifts, a custom known, according to your region, as Thomasing, gooding or mumping. The fitter men from the poorer families would visit their wealthier neighbours with plays, dances or songs, and earn the goodies in return; that is why customs such as mummers' plays, sword dances and carols are so important at this time. So, when your doorbell rings and you find a choir yelling "Good King Wenceslas" outside while a collector holds out a tin for a good cause, you are sharing in something thousands of years old.
Finally, the season has always been associated with fun. It is indeed the time of goodwill, not so much because of choirs of angels as because short daylight, cold and deep mud meant that armies, robbers and pirates stayed at home. People could therefore afford to relax and let their hair down in a way impossible at other times of the year. Masters and mistresses could pretend to be servants, the greatest churchmen give up their places to the most humble, and schoolteachers do the will of their pupils. It is traditionally the time of the Lord of Misrule, the Boy Bishop and the Feast of Fools. In our more democratic age, there is less need for such role-reversals (though it would be nice to see ' Gordon Brown give up Number Ten to one of his secretaries for the holiday). None the less, the paper crowns and silly jokes in the crackers are a modern reminder that it is the festival in which to stop taking the world so seriously.
So, if you feel sick of the commercialism, the overindulgence and the competitiveness of the modern Christmas, and if, in addition, you wonder where Christ is in all this, don't worry: St Gregory Nazianzen was moaning about exactly the same things in the mid-4th century. Complaining about the midwinter festival is itself a tradition at least two millennia old. It seems that, however we alter the exact timing or trappings, however we change the religion, the basic format of it will go on for ever. The domination of the modern world (so far) by Anglo-American culture has just meant that the European way of celebrating midwinter has now become almost worldwide. The only way in which we could truly put an end to it would be to change the climate: but then we're working on that.
Ronald Hutton's latest book is 'The Druids: A history' (Hambledon Continuum)