The medieval culture as a whole was less work-oriented, and the whole point of Christmas was to follow the injunction in Ecclesiastes to "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die", and work was cancelled for a full 12 days or more, from 25 December until Plough Monday, which next year falls on 12 January.
We developed the Christmas tradition also because we needed cheering up in the depths of winter. To take 12 days off for drinking, watching plays and general partying was a way of coping with the hardships of the season. So it is this year, too: when times are hard, money is tight, and we are constantly told that there is lots of "gloom" ahead by newspapers, there is all the more reason to eat, drink and be merry.
The work-loving Protestants and Puritans of the 17th century, though, hated feasts, fasts and old-fashioned festivals like Christmas, which they saw as superstitious, Popish, heathen. The feasts got in the way of productive activity. Indeed, one of the new freedoms that the Protestants insisted upon was the right to work over the Christmas holiday. The feasting culture, they felt, also led to drunkenness, debauchery, riots and casual sex, and if there's anything that got a Puritan really riled, it was the sight of people enjoying themselves. In 1643, a London newspaper complained that Christmas commemorated "an idol of the mass" and also that it was "frequently abused to carnal liberty". Therefore MPs cracked down on it. I think this sort of approach to things persists today: Parliament by its very nature is against fun and frivolity, and would prefer an orderly, hard-working populace. With very few exceptions, MPs are not the feasting type. They are Malvolios rather than Toby Belches.
Well, during the Commonwealth, that brief triumph of grey Parliamentarianism, Christmas was more or less banned. In 1643, an alliance between Parliament and the Scottish government called the Solemn League and Covenant was signed, which led to a Christmas crackdown. London shopkeepers began to keep their shops open on Christmas Day. On Christmas Day of 1643, the miserable, "Bah humbug!" Parliamentarians went into work as usual.
The following year saw a set of reforms that effectively put an end to old-style communal feasting and dancing. In the 1650s, laws were introduced that made it compulsory for shops and markets to open on Christmas Day, and you could be fined if you were caught celebrating Christmas. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the reforms were abolished and Christmas once again was celebrated openly.
In essence, to get the spirit of Christmas right we need to go back to 1450 or before. For a very modest outlay, we could literally celebrate like kings. It's possible to live very well on small amounts of money: you just have to go back in time. The necessary elements are: huge quantities of booze, preferably spiced wine or punch from a communal punch bowl, large quantities of people, a complete suspension of work for at least 12 days (and that means switch off the BlackBerries) large numbers of candles, and lots of dancing and singing.
As far as food goes, how about that exotic fruit the "orange"? Swans were a common feature of the medieval banquet, as were venison, goose and woodcock. If you have the funds, then hire a musician. But better still, gather round the piano, bring the ukulele or ask the guitar-playing teenager to learn some Christmas ditties so everyone can have a singsong. Fill the house with holly, ivy, rosemary and bays. Play cards. Play board games. Pass round the wassail bowl. Be generous. As the early-Tudor husbandry expert Thomas Tusser put it: "At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor, Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door?"
Open your doors, be merry, dance, drink too much, fall over: it's the true spirit of Christmas.
Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler' and author of 'How to be Free' (Penguin)Reuse content