Harold Walsby: The Christmas Story

The story of Christmas and its significance in human affairs makes a fascinating study for the socialist. It is a story bound up with so many different and seemingly unrelated things: sun-worship, human birth, the annual seasons, man’s guilty conscience, Big Business, the Golden Age, Christianity, symbolism, the Roman Saturnalia, magic and the Brotherhood of Man.

The earliest beginnings of Christmas go far back, long before the Christian era, into the dim mists of prehistoric times, many thousands of years ago – possibly, even, to somewhere near the dawn of human society itself. Prehistoric man was well aware of the apparent annual retreat of the sun through the heavens. To primitive people living in caves or crude dwellings, having little control over their environment, these annual events were greatly significant. The recurrence of the seasons coincided with the fluctuations in their food supplies, with scarcity and with plenty. The cyclical periods of pleasant warmth and bitter cold, of drought and flood, of short nights and long nights, coincided with the seasonal changes in the sun’s position. It is no matter for surprise, then, that these important observations should become bound up with primitive religion and ancient magic. The evidence for this is to be found in such prehistoric relics as Stonehenge and those of the ancient Maya calendar-culture in America.

Sun-worship in one form or another was very widespread in prehistoric times. Each year the dark days of winter brought with them a deep crisis in human affairs, a crisis which affected the whole universe of primitive, superstitious man. The food sources and supplies were at their lowest ebb. Vegetation was gone, animals were hibernating, the weather became bitter and hostile, and the sun lost its “strength” and became ever more feeble as it sank lower and lower in its daily journey through the sky.

This must have had a most profound effect on the minds of simple savages who, though they had experienced it many times before, had not fully grasped the natural cyclic inevitability of these events. No doubt they became very anxious and fearful The gods were threatening them with extinction once again. They had the “troubled minds” of guilty men.

The dark days of winter were their days of apprehension, strain and anxiety. The sun was gradually “dying,” and with it all nature and life. What was to become of them? Would the sun revive and return as it had done before? Or was this its last decline? Would it die completely this time and not recover – just as men sometimes didn’t recover from their sickness?

The symbolism of this ancient and ever-recurring crisis has remained with us right up to the present time. Whenever some great crisis “looms” over human affairs, we still regard the period as one of “dark days.” (Note the word “loom;” it means “to appear indistinctly,” from ancient words meaning to move slowly and be weak and weary). Remember the “dark days of the war” and the “dark days of 1940,” when Britain was threatened with imminent invasion.

Thus, in those far-off prehistoric times, the tension and anxiety mounted as the days of the dying sun approached their climax. By standing at a fixed spot at noon, and observing the sun’s passage against the height of a tree-trunk or rock, those primitive people could follow fearfully its decline to the lowest point. As the climax of the winter, solstice drew nigh, it became imperative to do something to aid the weakening sun in his struggle to escape death and regain new life. This they did with prayer and magic. Big bonfires were lit. The sun-like, glowing warmth and light of the fires cheered and revived the sun just as it cheered and revived the anxious minds of those who lit them. The magic worked – and the crisis was past.

The tension was broken. The gods favoured them after all. It was now the season of good cheer. Rejoice! for the sun is reborn! The “light of the world” was with them again. The gods had forgiven them. Peace and goodwill to men!

There was now promise of good things to come. The earth would grow fertile once more. They could now safely draw on the carefully-husbanded store of winter food. They could feast and drink and make merry. Men looked to the future with new hope and resolution. Like the sun, they had a new lease of life. It was like being born anew. It was indeed, they felt, a rebirth of mankind.

The tradition of the open Christmas log fire, of Christmas lights, and the ceremony of dragging home the Yule log remain with us to this day. So, also, does the sense of mounting tension and climax. So, too, does the feeling of relief and joy when the crisis breaks, when the tension is broken and we effuse goodwill, benevolence, brotherly love and charity to all around us. The feasting, the merry-making and dancing, the prayer, the renewed hope and good resolutions for the future – all these we continue to reproduce year after year.

When Christianity first came to Britain, December 25th was already an ancient and well-established festival bound up with human birth and motherhood. Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History was translated by Alfred the Great, wrote that “the ancient peoples of the Angli began the year on December 25, when we now celebrate the birthday of the Lord; and the very night which is now so holy to us, they called in their tongue modranecht, that is, the Mothers’ Night, by reason we suspect of the ceremonies which in that night-long vigil they performed.”

Curiously enough Christmas, or the Mass of Christ, was not one of the earliest festivals of the Christian Church. Until the fifth century there was no general agreement as to where Christ’s birthday should come in the calendar. The first certain identification of December 25th with Christmas came in the middle of the fourth century with the Calendar of Philocalus. It was about that time when the fathers of the church decided upon a date to celebrate the Lord’s birthday. They chose the day of the winter solstice because it was already firmly established as the most important festival of the year in the minds of the people. The fact that Christmas does not now coincide exactly with the winter solstice is due to changes which have been made to our calendars from time to time.

The grafting of the Mass of Christ on to the widespread pagan festival of the New Year was a masterly stroke of diplomacy. It gave the festival a new name and, more important, by introducing the imagery of the innocent Christ-child as both God and man, focused men’s attention on their lack of innocence and their mental burden of guilt. Primitive society was receding, and with it the primal innocence and brotherhood of men. If only they could regain their lost innocence! If only they could atone for the indifference and wickedness to their fellows that life in class society made inevitable!

But Christ, according to the Christians, was born into this world to enable men to do just that. He was the new “light of the world,” the new symbol of man’s hope and longing. He had come to remind men of the basic law of the good life and the good society: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” He had come, also, to save them from their breaches of this law. A child had been born to take away all the guilt and blame and shame of men. He thus gave them, like the reborn sun, a new lease of life and hope. They felt as if they themselves were reborn.

So, with the rise of Christianity, the main obsession of the pagan festival – symbolised in the rebirth of the sun and the return of the light – crystallised into the symbolism of the yearly celebration of the birth of Jesus and the promise of eternal light, a new golden age of primal innocence.

The pagan customs were thus carried over into the Christian festival without any difficulty or sense of inconsistency. At the pagan Saturnalia, the Roman festival of Saturn which was held in December, there was great merry-making and much giving of presents. These practices, together with the custom of decorating their homes and temples with green boughs and flowers, were continued into the Christian era. It is interesting to note that the Roman god Saturn (identified with the Greek god, Cronos) was regarded as the god and ruler of men in the traditional golden age of innocence and plenty.

“The Holly and the Ivy” of our present-day carols, were both used by the Saxons for decoration at their winter festival long before the coming of Christianity. Mistletoe was gathered by the ancient Druids for their celebration of the solstice. This amalgam of pagan and Christian tradition still continues – and with good reason. The development of private property and class society through feudalism into capitalism, made Christmas more and more a psychological necessity for men. It is no mere coincidence that Christmas has attained its greatest importance and popularity in the most economically advanced parts of the world.

In the harassing struggle and cut-throat competition of modern life, Christmas undoubtedly serves man’s deep emotional need more than ever. Capitalism has exploited this need, as it exploits every need, and has made Christmas the occasion for an orgy of Big Business and bell-ringing on its cash registers and tills. But despite all the sordid money-grubbing, the Christmas spirit remains intact. It comes welling up from the recesses of men’s minds after being repressed and buried for a whole year – Peace and Goodwill to Men.

These deep and ancient sentiments are the mental traces of long-lost primitive society and brotherhood which still linger in the depths of the human mind. They are also the hope and yearning for things to come; Earth, the good longer confined to a short season, but lasts the whole year round.

(Reprinted from The Socialist Leader Dec 21 1951: copy supplied by Ellis Hillman).

from Ideological Commentary 24, November 1986.