Over the past two evenings the BBC here in the UK has run a kind of reality documentary called Back In Time For Christmas. The basic premise of this was to transport a family back to the experience of a typical Christmas of previous decades. The first programme looked at the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, whilst the second covered the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. My apologies if those links to the BBC’s iPlayer don’t work outside the UK, I’m not sure on the availability!
These programmes featured the same family – the Robshaws – who had been the guinea pigs for a previous series called Back In Time For Dinner, which transported them back to previous decades but without the Christmas theme. Despite my feeling that some of the ‘facts’ given to us in the voiceover may have been wide of the mark I find this kind of social history programme fascinating. Of course it is contrived – move away from the house in which the events were set and you could see some pretty futuristic cars for the 1940s, for example – but having lived through most of the periods covered this struck more than a few chords with me. And it got me reflecting on how our Christmas celebrations have changed over the years, but also how, deep down, the tradition of the day has stayed remarkably constant at the heart of it all.
I was born in 1953 so the first Christmases I can really remember were probably in the early 1960s. Lest we forget – and we do! – Christmas is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course it has its origins in pagan rites, but the Christmas story is at the heart of Christian religions. People with other religious beliefs may or may not take part, depending on the prevailing customs of where they live, but that is really the nub of it. The supposedly more politically correct “Happy Holidays” or the Birmingham Council renaming of the festive period as ‘Winterval’ – I kid you not – are in my view abominations!
The programme showed the 1950s family attending church on Christmas Day which, to be honest, I never remember us doing in my childhood. My parents used to take us to church for the monthly family service and for special occasions, but I recall the annual carol service as being on the Sunday before Christmas, not on the actual day. Funnily enough, the Robshaws’ boy said exactly what I used to think about the service, i.e. how long it lasted. The reality was that it didn’t! In my defence, my days of doing this were before the ubiquity of central heating, and the church dated back to the 13th century. As you sang the carols you could see your breath in front of you! We used to go outside afterwards to warm up.
This was something that my now ex-wife and I did our best to replicate with our girls when they were little: Christmas began with the very child-oriented Christingle service on Christmas Eve, which was also attended by my mother-in-law, who then came to stay with us until it was time for her to go home and get ready for the next Christmas. (This ‘may’ be an exaggeration). I deny any connection between this and the fact that I usually worked between Christmas and New Year. Honestly! Anyway, my point is that although we weren’t particularly religious, we wanted to be part of this tradition, which felt meaningful and helped our girls understand that Christmas means more than just loads of presents, food and chocolate. Especially the chocolate! It is a good few years since we did this, but every year you can see similar services being attended on a widespread basis, despite a huge downturn in church attendances overall throughout the year.
Christmas as we celebrate it, and have done for more than 150 years, is above all a time for close friends and family. The programmes made that point well: their focus was on how the Robshaws and their three children adjusted to the differences in the types of family Christmas we have enjoyed over the past 60 years. From the amazingly sexist gender stereotyping of the earlier years, when the approach to a woman’s role appears to have been dictated by Tyson Fury, through to the more recent adoption of labour-saving practices – especially with Christmas dinner – Christmas has moved forward, reflecting changes in society. Maybe it is nostalgia, but seeing the 1970s version of the family all sitting together around the TV, watching the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, brought back so many happy memories for me, although I was in my 20s by then! I’ve spoken in a recent post about Morecambe and Wise, but it is still a staggering thought that around 40% of the population were sharing that experience by watching the programme as it was broadcast, with no catch up services to rely on.
There is so much wrong with our world. I’m looking forward to Christmas as a way of forgetting that for a while, and as a way to focus on those that we love and cherish in our lives. Many are not so fortunate, and it should also be a time for us to reflect on the good things in our lives, and to turning our minds to what we can do to help those less fortunate. However we do that, I hope we all have a wonderful Christmas time, to quote a certain ex-Beatle.