And now the Christmas news

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The Independent Online
CHRISTMAS is a grim time for columnists. Nothing happens, does it? And if you want to write something jolly, you're stuck with a handful of old standards - Scrooge in the Treasury, a facetious 'review' of the year ahead - which stopped being funny in the early Seventies.

So here, instead, is a new history of modern Britain. It is what the century looks like if you only take into account what happens to have happened on and around Christmas Day. This is not conventional history, but Christmas history, an indefensibly thin, ludicrously narrow sliver of our national life. Ridiculous? Perhaps. Meaningless? Decide for yourself.

On 31 December 1900, a terrible gale blew down one of the great upright stones supporting an arch at Stonehenge. An omen? It was certainly emblematic of two vital aspects of Christmas history: a tendency to national gloominess about decline and an almost deranged obsession with the weather (of which more later).

First, the Political Christmas History. This is hardly a season for politics, but it hasn't been a time of apolitical happiness, either. The wartime history of Christmas, for example, is at best mixed. Christmas Day 1914 saw the famous swapping of presents and footballs between British and German troops, an act of historic common sense. But in 1917 the Royal Flying Corps marked Christmas Eve by going out and dropping a ton of bombs on Mannheim. In the Second World War, Christmas Day 1941 was a bad one: British forces defending Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese.

Turning from war to peace brings little more cheer. On Christmas Day 1950 the 'Stone of Destiny', on which Scottish monarchs were crowned, was removed from Westminster Abbey by Scottish nationalist students. The Annual Register said this had led Britain to close the year 'in a mood of mystified perturbation'. Christmas Eve 1974 was marked by the detention of John Stonehouse, the missing MP, in Australia. In 1982, that day brought the welcome news from Margaret Thatcher that 'we are through the worst'. Does Christmas history give us a recognisable picture of Britain? So far, I reckon it does.

But what about the way we live? What might a Social Christmas History reveal? The first thing is how our festive anxieties differ in outward form, but not substance. Motorway pile-ups? Christmas newspapers from the earlier part of the century are filled with a succession of airship disasters and railway crashes, with deaths sometimes running into the hundreds. A report from Christmas Eve, 1910, for instance, notes with curious lack of respect for detail that 'about 12 persons were killed or burnt to death' on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

The march of the car was unstoppable, and by Christmas 1963 one talking point was a new report warning that there could be 27 million vehicles by 1980 and that cars 'could ruin this island by the end of the century'. This suggestion was a little alarmist - there were only 20 million by 1980 and there are now about 25 million vehicles on the roads. But some would argue that the ruination of the island has happened seven years early.

Plenty of Yuletide agonising is recorded about crime throughout the century. As for drugs, in 1955 the run-up to Christmas was marked by controversy over a government proposal to prohibit heroin. Britain then made 70 per cent of the world's legal supply and consumed, apparently, 54 per cent of it. Yet there were officially only 54 addicts in the country and prohibition was widely considered unnecessary for 'the suppression of this non- British vice'.

Violence? One right-wing columnist caused consternation earlier this year by suggesting that the middle classes needed to be allowed to arm themselves. An outrageously new concept - except that on Christmas Day 1901 I find a philanthropic member of the Astor family handing over pounds 10,000 to the National Rifle Association 'for the encouragement of civilian rifle clubs throughout the country'. A lot of rifles.

Nor is the taste for strange pranks a modern phenomenon. On Hogmanay 1907 there was great excitement in Highgate cemetery. The grave of Thomas Druce, a furniture salesman, was opened by legal authority, to check whether his death had been an elaborate jest by the eccentric fifth Duke of Portland. It wasn't. This is almost enough to make one feel sentimental about Jeremy Beadle. Almost.

You may have noticed some controversy among newspapers this year about whether to publish as normal throughout the festive period. Again, nothing new: in 1912, all the national newspapers, bar the Times, decided not to publish 'to give newsagents a holiday'. The Times was sent to subscribers by post - postmen, clearly, were still working on Christmas Day. The next year, however, the Times followed the others and suspended publication for the first time in its history.

A little closer to home, I feel obliged to note that one of the talking points of Christmas 1965 was whether the crisis-hit Times was safe after being bailed out by a Canadian press baron. (Talks with the equally struggling Guardian had collapsed and there was much worry about the future of an independent- minded quality press.)

The ritual of Christmas past included disasters, fires and controversy about the royals, just as it does today. On Christmas Day 1932, as King George V was preparing to make his first royal broadcast, Cobtree Manor, an Elizabethan pile near Maidstone, reputed to be the 'Dingley Dell' from Dickens's Pickwick Papers, was partly destroyed by fire. More fatal Christmas disasters litter the record, but would make a melancholy read.

Those royal broadcasts became a staple of Christmas discussion, particularly after they were televised (from 1957). Twelve Christmases later, after a year in which Prince Philip caused a furore by complaining that the Royal Family was nearly bust and warning that he might have to give up polo, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen would be ceasing her Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth, as outdated. What happened to that idea?

Perhaps it merely reminds us how much more powerful television is than the monarchy. These days most of us spend part of Christmas worried or baffled by images coming in from the rest of the world. On Christmas Eve 1979, remember, Russian troops invaded Afghanistan. In 1988, we were trying to come to terms with the Lockerbie air disaster. On Christmas Day 1989 the Ceausescus were executed, and on the same day two years later Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. Christmas in Sarajevo has a special guilt-tinged significance this year.

The Balkans? On Christmas Day 1911 it was reported that the corpse of Prince Alexander Karageorgevitch, the father of the King of Serbia, had been beheaded in in Vienna. The papers were perplexed, but noted that the head had later been recovered.

In the Cold War era, Christmas Day could be just as alarming. A particularly poignant event was the news on Christmas Day 1956 that Czechoslovakia's state radio was ceasing to play the Soviet national anthem each midnight.

Oh dear. This Christmas history is in danger of becoming as serious as the other kind. Let me end, therefore, with what the British have always spent most of their Christmas talking about - the weather. This matters more to people than kings, battles or disasters. It is much more important than politics, which it resembles only in being both always new and always the same.

We always yearn for a white Christmas, but never seem to know what to do if we actually get one. In 1906, there was chaos when four inches of snow fell in London on Boxing Day, and Aberdeen was cut off for almost four days. More mayhem came in 1927, with the most severe snowstorm 'for many years'. The Forties brought some seriously cold Christmases, and the country was thrown into deep confusion by the Christmas of 1961, the coldest Christmas Day since 1944. Power stations froze and thousands had to go without hot Christmas dinners.

Football matches were cancelled the following year (and bookies faced unemployment as a result), while pheasants froze to death in the hedgerows. We have always been keen on the 'worst/wettest/coldest since . . .' game, and 1962 was confidently declared to have been the worst winter since 1740. 'The weather may be dismissed with contempt,' declared the Register.

But looking through old newspapers, one cannot avoid the conclusion that, as a nation, we are not contemptuous so much as incorrigible whingers about the weather. We always seem personally affronted by whatever happens to be going on over our heads. Weather reviews constantly noted 'an excess of rainfall . . . deficient sunshine . . . very little summer', followed, inevitably, a few years later by similar head-shaking at unprecedented droughts.

So there it is: Christmas history reveals a country permanently worried about the same things - the danger of travel, the monarchy, the weather, and the inexplicable behaviour of foreigners. Which is, I admit, not a wholly revolutionary conclusion. May I wish all readers a happy Christmas, and express the hope that no heavily armed duke crashes his airship on to your snow- covered roofs.

Andrew Marr's column will return in the New Year.

(Photographs omitted)