Old morality plays dressed in pagan costume

The soaps: EastEnders BBC1 Coronation Street ITV Brookside Channel 4 Emmerdale ITV
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And behold, an unwise man from the East End - Albert Square's self-styled Lord of Misrule, Grant Mitchell - was accused of attempted murder and was accompanied in his exile drear by the revelation that his wife had given evidence against him. By the end of a tiring Christmas Day Grant's large glistening eyes reproachfully proclaimed his innocence like a brace of pickled onions abandoned on the sideboard. It was splendid, larger-than-life acting, but then in their "ordinary" way television soap operas do tend to dress up the simplest morality tales with all sorts of entertainingly exaggerated themes, disguises, postures and gestures. They almost resemble the mummers in traditional Twelfth Night mystery pageants. And EastEnders was not alone in giving an even more fantastical folkloric and allegorical spin than usual to its Christmas episodes.

One by one the cardboard windows of the EastEnders, Coronation Street, Brookside and Emmerdale advent calendars opened so that we could peer at the vignettes of quaint customs within. Seasonal fisticuffs, a warming winter crowd-pleaser that often went with wassailing celebrations and playlets in ancient times, was a popular choice all round. Grant managed to give Tiffany's spivvy fancyman Beppe a festive shove in the caff to the accompaniment of Aled Jones trilling "We Are Walking In The Air". He wanted to duff up Jamie, the scrawny little Herbert who grassed him up, but was held in check by his spherical brother Phil, and a loud contrapuntal background carolling of "All is Calm, all is Bright".

In Coronation Street there was Greg, the lady-bashing tosser, scampering threateningly down the road after poor Sally, who luckily was light on her feet having been refused a Christmas lunch by her troll-like husband Kevin. Emmerdale's Marlon had his face rearranged by Butch into the shape of a turkey's bottom before he'd finished draping the tinsel. Brooksiders contented themselves with prodding each other hard with accusing fingers when Our Nikki had her knickers removed by a Crimbo-party rapist who'd obviously been doing his homework into the pre-Christian origins of Christmas as the midwinter, erotic festival of Saturnalia.

The displaying of symbolic life-renewing evergreens has always been a central part of the rituals of the winter solstice, and the old traditions are well maintained at Roy's Rolls eaterie in Coronation Street. Look! There is born-again transsexual Hayley merrily swathing Roy's tree with clusters of mind-altering luminous lights! Over at Kathy's Diner in Emmerdale, on the other hand, the tree was almost invisible under great hawsers of tinsel.

Since the Middle Ages, red holly berries in wreaths have been used as talismans to keep witches at bay, but, alas, they seemed to have no power against EastEnders ' resident crone Dot Cotton, who blatantly stood in front of the wreath-decked vicarage door and threatened the trendy young parson with a "karaoke version of Three Kings" at the Christmas morning service. Sadly, there was little evidence of Druidic mistletoe at all, unless one considers the presence of Coronation Street's resident crim and scrounger Jackie Bobbs a subtle modern symbol of the ancient green parasite.

In their treatment of Santa Claus, the soaps veered uncomfortably close to his pagan origins as the god Odin, the Yule bringer of reward or retribution. In EastEnders , many wide-angle shots of Albert Square revealed a mysterious Father Christmas carrying a black plastic bag that could have contained either fluffy teddies or body parts. In one episode of Coronation Street, every time we visited Roy's caff there was another fat, weirdie, beardie bloke in a red suit sitting at the table until, magically, there were five of them hunched over the fried bread.

Roy gave the most frightening Rent-a-Santa stranger his presents, as you would, and told him to come back later and deliver them when he and Harold/Hayley were having a romantic early Christmas dinner. That he came at all was surprising; that he came without a chainsaw was amazing. In fact the shifty gift-bringer took one look at the Lambrusco, mildly enquired "Ere, is that there shampoo?" and unwisely helped himself to a swig.

Most antique advent calendars reveal spidery drawings of steaming figgy puddings, plum cakes and boars' heads surprised by honeyed apples. Given that contemporary popular culture is thoroughly obsessed with the deification of food, it is perhaps a healthy sign that in the soaps festive food took a back seat to the characters' seasonal Sturm und Drang. There were no Nigel Slatery angels' hair carrots, Sophie Grigsonesque cardamom parsnips, or Delia Smithsonian sprouts cunningly boiled in just enough water. Soap families celebrate with platters of traditionally unappealing dishes that look as if they've been ceremonially singed over ye olde ashen faggot and dipped in Ronseal. One couldn't help but agree with Coronation Street's tea-cosy-hatted oracle, Maud, when she muttered, "I'd rather have a poached egg."

At some gatherings (especially soap gatherings, perhaps) it is best to toy busily with your hard/floppy carrots and get quietly drunk while all hell breaks loose around you. There was just such a rumbustious occasion in Brookside when Bev, unwittingly playing the part of the Ghost of Christmas Past, managed to get herself invited to her ex-bloke Ron Dixon's for lunch on The Big Day. Sadly, she bought him a bright yellow satin shirt instead of the new ginger toupee he so obviously needs, but she made up for it with the extra gift of some snide bitchery to Ron's other guests, including the po-faced baby-purchaser Susannah, and surrogate mum Jacqui. Tastefully enquiring about the impregnation technique used to procure the pregnancy she asked: "So yer did that down the hozzie?"

When told that, au contraire, a turkey baster had been employed rather than a hospital wotsit, Bev stared at their sumptuously basted broken meats and cried with goblin-like glee: "Thank god I'm a veggie!"

Baby Jesus had lots of stand-ins this year. Coronation Street's Judy Mallett thoughtfully produced two newborns: nice clean twins who popped out politely in Weatherfield Hospital on Christmas Day as if they'd just been delivered by Hamleys. Poor deluded Zoe Tattershall, meanwhile, abandoned family and friends over Christmas to conceive a holy baby for the cult of Nirab with a sullen bloke sporting a black polo-neck and an amulet. Bianca from EastEnders provided a fabulously realistic amount of hollering producing her Christmas Day son in a back bedroom at the Queen Vic, but then who wouldn't with post-ironic emotional retards Grant and Phil Mitchell as birth companions and impromptu Magi?

Emmerdale's Dingle family are a tribe of enormous shoutaholics whose rustic Yorkshire homelife makes the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm look like the Bloomsbury Circle. Theirs is the sort of Dingley Dell where when someone knocks on the door on Christmas Day one of the rude mechanicals (Butch, of course), cries eagerly, "It's probably carol singers, I'll go and get the hose!" Paper hats and reindeer horns were worn over actual hats at Christmas lunch, but this charming eccentricity was as nothing to the post-prandial entertainment to come.

Lisa, in her late forties, is a stout party, it cannot be denied. But what a thing of wonder when she nipped out to the lowly pig-pen to see how her poorly porker Jessica was getting on, and a baby unexpectedly fell out of her! Yes, out of Lisa, not Jessica! Just like that - in front of a startled locum vet and the prone pig in the straw. Now this was a common touch crib tableau and homespun miracle play the mummers of yore would have recognised and relished. Glory to the new-born Dingle.

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