Christmas and Four Nations History

Christmas and Four Nations History

Dr Martin Johnes (Swansea University) writes about the emergence of ‘the British Christmas’ post-1914 and asks whether there was a national festival culture.

Like most historians of the non-English parts of the UK, I have been annoyed from time to time about books that purport to be about Britain but actually only mention England.  However, it is often easier to ‘criticise’ than to ‘do’ and my book on the British Christmas since 1914, my first monograph that was not about Wales, challenged me to put my preaching about four nations history into practice.

My location and background meant the book would never ignore Wales. I had the Welsh sources on my doorstep and my wider reading and research had already thrown up examples that I knew I could use. However, they did not lead to any sense of there being a distinctive Welsh Christmas.  

Nonetheless, I did want to make sure that I employed some Welsh-language sources and thus I hunted in the press for evidence that I could use, almost as a point of principle.

It was there that I found some consideration of Santa’s national identity.  In 1914, one Welsh-language newspaper thought he belonged to the English but five years later another urged readers not to reject Father Christmas because he had an English name.  Ironically, in England during the First World War, a few people had rejected Santa because they thought he was German.

However, such isolated examples point to a problem with some of the four-nations history that does exist. Where the focus shifts from England, the emphasis is often on ‘difference’ and the power of national identities below the British level.  Historians of Wales and Scotland have also sometimes been guilty of something similar.  Partly perhaps in an effort to justify their topic, they, too, have often stressed the differences within the United Kingdom rather than the similarities. [1]

Christmas was a symbol of British culture, sometimes of its historic roots and sometimes of its modernity.  As Mark Connelly has shown, older celebrations of this more often focussed on an English rather than British identity. [2] But, as the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, a more uniform celebration of Christmas developed across the United Kingdom. Localized rural customs fell away and an apparent national British festival emerged, based first on the Victorian traditions of presents, trees, cards, and a good dinner, and then cemented by radio, television and Royal speeches.

In Scotland, the adoption of ‘English’ Christmas customs was being remarked on from the late nineteenth century. But the process was a gradual one and initially focussed more than anything on children. It was as late as 1958 before Clydeside shipyards decided to close on Christmas day.  Boxing day was not made a Scottish bank holiday until 1974, a century later than England and Wales.

Through the second half of the twentieth century, there were still those in Scotland who liked to think that a perceived preference for Hogmanay over Christmas was evidence of the distinctiveness of Scottish culture. But the reality was, with the exception of the Highlands and Islands where the influence of Presbyterianism held out, Scottish festive culture became more and more similar to the rest of the UK over the course of the twentieth century.

This, however, did not diminish Scottish identity. As in Wales, it could be argued that the weakening of cultural distinction actually strengthened a sense of cultural identity because, rather than being something obvious or assumed, it became something that had to be worked for and proclaimed. As increasingly became the case with the Welsh and Scottish Christmas, this often involved looking to the past rather than the present.

Tackling the case of Northern Ireland in my book was less straightforward. My reading of the sources suggested to me little that was different about the Northern Irish Christmas. I deliberately used some Northern Irish examples to illustrate generic points about Britain in order to illustrate that but I also felt I could not ignore the issues where Northern Ireland was different.

Political and religious tensions in the six counties inevitably impacted on Christmas.  In 1922, for example, the government refused to lift a curfew to allow Catholics to hold their normal Christmas Eve midnight mass. When the Cardinal of Armagh announced he would hold one anyway, he was told that the police would surround the cathedral and not let anyone out until morning.  But, again, such examples that highlight internal British differences have to be employed in a way that does not brush over the swathes of common experience that united the peoples of the UK.

For the historian, the nuances of national identity, the simultaneous existence within the UK of similarity and difference, are normally articulated through the subtleties of writing, something which I found easier said than done. I agonised over whether the reader would appreciate the situation in Scotland before he or she had got to the section specifically on that. I could have had a qualifier along the lines of ‘although less so in Scotland’ for every mention of pre-1950s Britain.

For all the fading of national differences in the celebration of the British Christmas, other differences remained which complicated claims of a national festival culture. A four-nations approach should not marginalize the influence of class, gender and race. Beneath the seemingly uniform British Christmas were significant differences of experiences based on these other identities.

Nonetheless, Christmas did come to be perceived as part of a British way of life and by the end of the twentieth century there were even paranoid fears that this was under threat from the forces of immigration and political correctness.  Such voices not only failed to understand that Christmas actually had a history of facilitating the cultural integration of immigrants but also the very plural character of British culture itself.

Like Britishness itself, beneath Christmas’ veneer of uniformity was a plethora of nuances, meanings and practices. Like Britishness, there were no set rules to how Christmas should be celebrated or articulated.  Like Britishness, Christmas’s success was how rooted in its very flexibility and the looseness of its definitions.

[1] For an exploration of this point in relation to Welsh history and historiography see Martin Johnes, ‘Wales, History and Britishness’, Welsh History Review, 25, 4 (2011), 596-619.

[2] Mark Connelly, Christmas: A Social History (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999).

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is the author of Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). His previous books include Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2017) and A History of Sport in Wales (University of Wales Press, 2005). A second edition of his Aberfan: Government and Disaster will be published in 2017.

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