Chapter 1: The Five Stories of Christmas CHAPTER 1 The Five Stories of Christmas GETTING TO THE HEART OF CHRISTMAS
What image makes you pause a moment and realize that Christmas is on its way? The first robin appearing in the hedgerow? The blurred reflection of Christmas lights in puddles on the road? The scent of cinnamon and cloves? Woodsmoke in the air? A good mood, riding on the shoulders of passersby?
We all have our markers, and when we catch a glimpse of one, inhale the aroma of another, and sense the arrival of a third, our brain stitches all of the pieces together and whispers, “Christmas is coming.”
When I hear the word “Christmas,” I see a personal movie reel in my mind’s eye. And your own reel probably starts running, too. But that doesn’t mean we are watching the same show. Therein lies the challenge we face when sharing Christmas with other people. We all expect different things, often without even realizing it.
If you find yourself insisting that Christmas has “lost all meaning,” it may be that you feel caught up in a story that you consider unimportant or trivial, rather than one you value. Or perhaps you are inadvertently judging other people’s notions of Christmas through your own lens. This mismatch of expectation and reality can be a real source of stress and resentment at this time of year, and it is the main obstacle we have to overcome in order to experience a calmer, more joyful Christmas.
I became curious about which symbols of Christmas are universal, as I thought they may give us something to rally around. As I dug deeper into my research, I was surprised to learn that not one single element of the stereotypical Christmas is invariably applicable. Not everyone puts up a Christmas tree, or sings carols, or hopes for snow, or cooks a turkey, or exchanges gifts, or gathers with others to celebrate.
Nevertheless, there is a pool of experiences from which we all seem to draw at least one memory that is closely associated with the season, often related to our senses. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of Christmases past linger in our hearts and inform our ideas of what it should be in the future.
In the course of my research, I also discovered that the roots of our traditions are deeply buried in legend and lore, and that it is extremely hard to unearth accurate facts about the origins of Christmas. The history of this most famous holiday is littered with so many contradictions, assumptions, and unverifiable assertions that getting to the truth of it all is challenging.
Even the duration of Christmas is up for discussion. Some people start with the lighting of the first Advent candle—four Sundays before Christmas—and run through to Twelfth Night (January 5) on the eve of the Epiphany. Others begin with the winter solstice (somewhere between December 20 and 23, depending on the year) and honor the old tradition of Yule in early January. For yet others, the Christmas season starts with the Black Friday sales the day after Thanksgiving (which falls on the fourth Thursday each November) and ends with collapsing onto the sofa surrounded by discarded wrapping paper on Christmas Day. And some people manage to compress the whole thing into three days of mayhem and indulgence from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day (December 26), based around when the office is closed.
Our Christmas timelines, along with our food, decorations, and activities, vary according to culture and generation. Some people love the flurry and bustle of Christmas, while others resent the retail-led nature of the season and would rather spend it in peace.
In speaking to people from all walks of life, of all ages and backgrounds, I discovered one salient truth: every Christmas is unique. Each one is a carefully constructed, complex narrative that has formed as Christmas has whirled across time and geography, down family lineages, through television and social media feeds, and around our kitchen tables. No two are ever the same, either from year to year or from person to person. We need to slow down and get up close to see the complex and particular beauty of each one.
THE FIVE STORIES OF CHRISTMAS
Everyone I asked seemed to value and identify with at least one of five essential stories of Christmas. These are tales of faith, magic, connection, abundance, and heritage that have been told and retold for generations. Our personal connection to each of them offers a snapshot of what Christmas means to us at a particular moment in our lives. They provide clues to the triggers for our stress and the sources of our joy. They offer a framework for understanding our individual, deep-rooted views of Christmas, and discerning what to hold on to and what to release.
Even more importantly, viewing Christmas through the lens of these five stories can increase our understanding of each other, which can have a monumental, positive impact on our shared experience. By understanding what matters most to ourselves and those close to us, we can organize our gatherings, prepare our hearts, and strengthen our resolve to give and take just enough to ensure a calm, joyful Christmas for everyone.
So, with open minds and a stocking full of curiosity, let’s dive into the five stories of Christmas.
NOTE: At the end of each of the five stories, I will ask you to reflect on your degree of connection to it and its influence on your interpretation of Christmas. Some of the stories might resonate deeply, others not at all. Be honest, and write what you really think. There are no right or wrong answers as everyone’s Christmas is different.
THE STORY OF FAITH
The biblical Christmas story,1 which is celebrated in cathedrals, churches, and chapels and acted out every year by millions of small children in tinsel headdresses the world over, might be considered the archetypal Christmas Story of Faith. It is instantly recognizable from a number of details: no room at the inn; a baby born in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes; a bright star in the sky. When you look closely, it is a fantastical, powerful tale of dreams and intuition, greed and fear, generosity and wonder, perseverance and joy.
Here is a summary of this famous story as I have come to know it, with some of the finer points omitted for brevity. Forgive me if the version you know differs a little. Long, long ago (about two millennia back), far, far away (in Judea, to the west of the Dead Sea), God sent an angel (Gabriel) to visit a young woman by the name of Mary. She lived in the town of Nazareth and was engaged to marry a carpenter named Joseph. Gabriel told Mary that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a baby boy, who was God’s own son. She should name him Jesus (which some translate as “Savior”). At the time, Judea was part of the Roman Empire, and the Emperor Augustus ordered a census of the population to ensure everyone was up to date with their taxes. This meant that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. When they finally arrived, every lodging house was full. After knocking on many doors and being turned away, they finally found a friendly innkeeper who offered them the use of his stable. After such a long journey, the shelter was a relief, and it was there that Jesus was born. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger filled with hay. On the hills around Bethlehem, angels appeared to a group of shepherds to tell them the good news: the Son of God had been born in the town that night. The shepherds went to visit Jesus, and told everyone about their visitation. At the same time, a bright star appeared in the sky. It was spotted from far away by a trio of Wise Men, who had read that a new star would appear when a great king was born. They decided to follow the star and pay homage to the new king. The Wise Men eventually arrived at the stable and bowed down to the baby, offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
When you dig into the details of this story, there are countless gray areas and seeming inaccuracies. For instance, according to the historical record, the census was held in AD 6, some six years after Mary and Joseph supposedly made the trip to Bethlehem. There are also questions regarding why shepherds were tending their sheep in the fields at the end of December, and why the heavily pregnant Mary traveled to Bethlehem with her husband, given that women were not included in Roman censuses.2 Regardless, the story is undeniably captivating, which is why it has survived for so many generations and spread so far across the world.
It was a fourth-century bishop of Rome who first proclaimed December 25 to be the date of Jesus Christ’s Nativity. Since then, many other church-based traditions and rituals have developed around the day itself, including the lighting of Advent candles, bell ringing, Midnight Mass, and, of course, the singing of Christmas carols. Many famous carols retell aspects of the Nativity story, whereas others focus on hardship, generosity, and a sense of shared humanity in the bleakest part of the year.
I will never forget my elder daughter’s first candlelit carol service in the tiny village church, her little heart bursting with pride as she declared that it was “Busy, busy, busy in Bethlehem today.” The centuries-old stone building was swollen with sweet voices and a cloud of mulled wine as the carols swirled in the cold night air.
While some places still sing traditional carols that date back hundreds of years—such as the sixteenth-century “Coventry Carol”—most of the familiar ones were written much later than that.3 Nevertheless, when you join with other voices on a dark December night, you step into a continuum of communal Christmas spirit that flows through the ages.
According to the late Stephen Cleobury, former director of music at King’s College, Cambridge: Those who have been nurtured in this tradition but who have in one way or another departed from it can still respond at this special time of year to the retelling of the Christmas story. Many who have no faith or who come from other religious traditions can be deeply moved by the combinations of words and music, which, at the simplest level, tell the human story of the birth of a young child.
So, here we are in the twenty-first century, many of us grappling with what to make of the Story of Faith. Ponder your own personal connection to it and the role it has played in your Christmases over the years.
CALM CONTEMPLATION: FAITH
- Which parts of the Story of Faith do you connect with the most? Why? How do you feel when you think about them?
- Do you have a specific memory that is related to the Story of Faith?
- What is your personal Story of Faith? How does it relate to Christmas, if at all?
- Is there anything about the Story of Faith (including expectations connected to it) that you find stressful or otherwise challenging?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is faith to you at Christmas?
THE STORY OF MAGIC It’s Christmas Eve, and at the North Pole a jolly, plump, bearded old man is pulling on a velvety red suit, edged with white fur. He fastens the gold buckle on his wide black belt and pats his belly with both hands as he checks his reflection in the long wooden mirror. He peers at his face and wonders if his cheeks are looking pinker than usual this year. There are a few extra wrinkles, but really he’s doing rather well for his age. “Father Christmas! It’s nearly time!” one of his elves calls to him from the workshop, where hundreds of others are gathering the last of the presents to pile onto the wooden sleigh. The old man nods, takes one last sip of steaming hot chocolate from his favorite mug for a little warmth on the long journey that lies ahead, and strides into the take-off area. His sleigh is looking marvelous tonight. The golden frame is glowing. His reindeer are grunting excitedly, looking well-fed and ready for a midnight dash around the world. An elf runs over and hands the old man the list. The scroll is longer than ever this year. “Mostly ‘nice,’ I’m glad to see,” Father Christmas says with a wink as he climbs into the driver’s seat. He takes the reins and, in a cloud of silvery dust, he is off.
I grew up with this particular Story of Magic. Later, I learned that there were many alternative versions. Some children believed that Father Christmas resided in Lapland, while others insisted his headquarters were in Greenland or northern Canada. Some knew him as Santa Claus, while others had heard that he lived with an equally jolly wife, Mrs. Claus, who supervised the gift making. But we all agreed on one detail: as long as we had been good throughout the year and were fast asleep when he arrived, the big man and his reindeer would land on the roof of each house, then pop down the chimney (or through a window for those who lived in flats) with a sackful of presents. He would leave the gifts in stockings and under the tree, down a glass of sherry, eat a sweet treat and gather up any carrots left out for his reindeer, then shoot back up the chimney (or out the window) and head off to the next house.
As a child, I adored everything about this story. The snow, the elves’ workshop, the promise of hooves clattering on the roof and reindeer flying through the sky. And, of course, the mound of presents when we awoke on Christmas morning.
It’s difficult to trace the exact origins of the legend of Father Christmas, and, like all the best stories, it evolves with the telling. It is likely that the version I know was forged, in part at least, by the imaginations of screenwriters and film directors who have presented it in a plethora of Christmas movies. But there is some historical basis for it too, albeit a debated one,5 which leads us all the way back to fourth-century Turkey and the bishop of Myra, who was later canonized as Saint Nicholas.6
The story goes that Nicholas was a wealthy man, having inherited a fortune from his parents, but he was kind and generous with it. One day, he heard of a poor man with three daughters who were unable to marry their sweethearts because their father could not afford their dowries. Nicholas wanted to help but also remain anonymous, so he dropped a bag of gold down the chimney in the middle of the night, whereupon it fell into a stocking that the eldest daughter had hung to dry by the fire. He then did the same for the second and third daughters. However, on the third occasion, the father caught Nicholas in the act and was finally able to offer his sincere thanks. In time, after many other kind acts, Nicholas was made a saint, and ever since, children have hung up stockings in the hope that he might look kindly on them, too.
There are countless different names for the lead character in this story, ranging from Père Noël (France) to Sinterklaas (Holland), and the date when he dispenses his gifts varies too, but the heart of the tale is always the same.7
The story spans the realms of the real world and the imagination. It connects behavior to reward in the minds of young children and reassures them that someone else, in addition to a parent or guardian, is always looking out for them. And it is enchanting. Who doesn’t love the idea of flying reindeer?
CALM CONTEMPLATION: MAGIC
- Where did your ideas about Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa Claus come from?
- Did you enjoy other magical stories as a child?
- What is your view of magic—in any form—these days?
- Do you have a specific memory that is related to the Story of Magic?
- Is there anything about this Story of Magic (including any expectations connected to it) that you find stressful or otherwise challenging?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how important are magic and wonder to you at Christmas?
THE STORY OF CONNECTION
In 1843, a well-known English writer by the name of Charles Dickens published a new novel. The observations and morals he presented in those pages have gone on to inform Christmases around the world ever since. The novel in question was A Christmas Carol
, and the story goes something like this: One bitter Christmas Eve, a tight-fisted, mean-spirited old man called Ebenezer Scrooge is unkind to his loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit, refuses to give money to charity, and is rude to his nephew, who has invited him over for Christmas. That night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and then by three more spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back in time so that he may see himself as an unhappy child, then as a young man who is more interested in money than love. The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals Bob Cratchit’s family, where the smallest child—Tiny Tim—is in poor health but full of Christmas cheer, and then his nephew, whose invitation he so rudely declined. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future—the most terrifying of all—shows Scrooge visions of his own death. Through these visitations, Scrooge comes to realize what really matters. He wakes up on Christmas Day, buys an enormous turkey for Bob Cratchit and his family, then enjoys a jolly Christmas with his nephew.
This story is very close to my heart. I remember staying up late one year to help make a costume for my older brother’s portrayal of Bob Cratchit in the school play. We dug out an old knitted vest from the back of our dad’s closet, tore holes in the knees of his school trousers, and bent some wire into the shape of horn-rimmed glasses. The outfit was completed with a pair of fingerless gloves, to keep his hands warm in Scrooge’s unheated office. I must have read or watched A Christmas Carol
at least a dozen times over the years—on paper, in my brother’s school production, on professional stages, and in the Disney cartoon.8
If you dig into historical records of Christmas, there is a clear distinction between how it was celebrated until the mid-nineteenth century (when Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas
9 and A Christmas Carol
were both published) and thereafter. Samuel Pepys’s seventeenth-century diaries reveal a focus on churchgoing (morning and
evening) and food. For instance, in 1662, he tells us that his Christmas meal consisted of plum porridge, roasted pullet, and a mince pie.10 Little changed for a couple of centuries, but then many of the traditions we still hold dear today were invented, one after another, over the course of a few short years at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. Before long, these customs were wholly absorbed into popular culture.
It seems that A Christmas Carol
, which was published just nine years after Christmas Day became a designated national holiday in England, was not so much an account of the typical Christmas but the catalyst for a new kind of festive sentimentality. It gained immense popularity internationally, especially after Dickens undertook a series of promotional tours in the United States, which was in the midst of a transition towards a new kind of Christmas celebration. A Christmas Carol
is a tale of humanity, generosity, fear, family, and second chances. But when you look closely at the story—and at the wider Victorian Christmas that was the setting for the novel—you quickly realize that the principal theme is connection. People gather, share food and time, and display their gratitude towards each other. Indeed, several of the traditions that help us connect—or reconnect—with friends and family at this time of year have their origins precisely when Dickens was writing his story.
In 1843, an inventor by the name of Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to design the world’s very first Christmas card.11 It bears the greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You” and features a jolly gathering of people toasting the festivities. It was another three decades before the first Christmas card originating in the US appeared, in 1875.12 Some say the modern Christmas card industry did not really begin until 1915, when a Kansas City–based postcard printing company, the Hall Brothers, created its first holiday card, and soon adopted a new format of a folded card in an envelope. A decade later the company changed its name to Hallmark, and now offers over two thousand designs. A century on, and more than 1.3 billion holiday cards are exchanged in the US each year.13
Then we have the introduction of the indoor Christmas tree, which rapidly became a central symbol of Christmas for millions of families. It is thought that the first Christmas tree—which was decorated with apples, wafers, and gingerbread—was erected in Freiberg, Germany, as long ago as 1419.14 Thereafter, other Central European towns, cities, and countries gradually adopted the tradition. Prince Albert is often credited with bringing the idea to Britain, but it actually arrived in the 1790s, when Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, decorated a tree for their children.15 Members of the royal family continued the custom into the new century, so Victoria was familiar with Christmas trees from her childhood.
In 1848, The Illustrated London News
printed a picture of Victoria and Albert and their children enjoying Christmas at Windsor Castle.16 The image features a tree bedecked with lit candles and simple decorations while the young royals gaze at it in wonder. It was this picture, and the joy it evoked, that prompted so many ordinary British families to decorate trees in their own homes from the following year onwards. And before long the custom had made its way across the Atlantic. President Franklin Pierce installed a tree in the White House in 1856, and trees were being sold at Washington Square Park in New York by the 1870s.17
These days, the Christmas tree connects us to each other through rituals of decorating, singing, and opening presents beneath it. But it also allows us to reconnect with ourselves, as the American painter Jennifer Ray explains: “As much as I love sharing the time with my family, my very favorite thing to do is to spend a few evenings when everyone has gone to sleep, sitting with the lights off, staring at the twinkling Christmas tree and savoring the magic of Christmas.”
This Story of Connection manifests itself in many different ways. For some, it is embodied in a deep love of feasting. For others, it’s about generosity and gift-giving. For yet others, it’s linked to treasuring family bonds, which are strengthened through collective experiences at Christmastime. The Story of Connection continues with trees to gather around, cards to send, and feasts to share. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones and toast love, life, and the year gone by.
CALM CONTEMPLATION: CONNECTION
- Do you have a specific memory that is related to a Christmas tree, a Christmas feast, or a particular Christmas gathering?
- Is there anything about the Story of Connection (including any expectations connected to it) that you find stressful or otherwise challenging?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how important are connection, gathering, and feasting to you?
THE STORY OF ABUNDANCE
The fourth Christmas story is one of abundance—of showering loved ones with gifts and sharing our good fortune with others. It’s typified by neighborhood illuminations, the festive pop songs that echo through shopping malls, the Christmas versions of everything from socks to doughnuts, slippers to cat food, the hot dog stands garlanded with tinsel and fundraising Santas on the streets of New York, gingerbread lattes in red cups, and garish Christmas sweaters.
The volume has steadily increased on this Story of Abundance since the 1920s as department stores, television executives, advertising agencies, and social media influencers have all seized this annual opportunity to maximize their profits. Indeed, the current retail-led version of Christmas would be unrecognizable to our great-grandparents.
Back then, Christmas requests were a lot simpler than today. In 2018, a 120-year-old letter to Santa was discovered inside a book donated to a charity shop in England. In neat, looped handwriting, five-year-old Marjorie asks for a piece of ribbon, a ball for her cat Kittykins, and a canvas stocking.18
By contrast, while some families today plan to give only a handful of carefully considered gifts, some gift fifty or more presents to each child.19
Some people deride this as rampant commercialism. Others enjoy nothing more than piling brightly wrapped gifts around the tree. Although personally I think gift-giving has gone too far, there is no right or wrong way to embrace the Story of Abundance. The key is to work out which elements of the modern Christmas bring you genuine joy and cherish them, then let go of the rest, rather than get sucked into the materialistic whirlwind.
There are many positive aspects to the Story of Abundance. After all, “abundance” is a generous word. There can be a sense of fun and community spirit in all of this. There is perhaps no better time to share the bounty of our labors than over Christmas, and it can be a true joy to see loved ones opening a gift they adore. We can choose to support creative, independent manufacturers and small businesses through our purchases. Window-shopping to view the handiwork of talented merchandisers can be a delight. Wandering through a traditional Christmas market, hot glühwein
in hand, perusing handmade crafts and soaking up the festive atmosphere can be a wonderful way to spend a wet evening in December.
But the Story of Abundance also has a dark side of excess, materialism, greed, and waste. It is up to each of us to grapple with that, and settle somewhere that feels authentic, responsible, and good.
CALM CONTEMPLATION: ABUNDANCE
- What elements of the more commercial side of Christmas do you recall from your childhood? Which aspects did you find exciting (such as a particular television ad, the idea of stockings bursting with gifts, writing a letter to Santa, etc.)?
- What is your view of giving (and receiving) gifts today?
- How do you feel about Christmas shopping?
- Is there anything about the Story of Abundance (including any expectations connected to it) that you find stressful or otherwise challenging?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is the celebration of abundance (by way of Christmas shopping, gifting, etc.) to you?
THE STORY OF HERITAGE
This is your family’s heirloom version of Christmas, the one that’s been handed down to you; and, if you have a partner, perhaps blended with theirs. It is a carefully strained composite of all the geographical, ethnic, and cultural influences you have received, grown up with, or adopted over the course of many years—the inherited treasures and quirky traditions that link you directly to your family and childhood. Perhaps you follow your great-grandmother’s secret strudel recipe each year. Or sing a particular song every Christmas morning. Or haul a Yule log into the house. Or hang out the stocking your father used as a child. Or step outside before bedtime on Christmas Eve to soak up the cool, winter air, just as you have every year since you were fifteen.
Depending on where your family hails from, or where you live now, you may have been exposed to local folklore that has been passed down over centuries.
Some people like to honor pagan midwinter rites, while others focus on the local climate or on how their families celebrated Christmas in years gone by.
Remember, though, that tradition is not the same as convention. The former encompasses a degree of commitment—you have to want to keep tradition alive—whereas the latter relates to organizing things in a certain manner simply because they’ve always been done that way. So the Story of Heritage involves choosing
to recognize, honor, and uphold certain traditions.
The depth and variety of people’s versions of this story are apparent in the following recollections from around the world:
I celebrate the winter solstice and love walking in the woods and the countryside on a clear, crisp morning. I love fairy lights, candles, being indoors by the fire, the scent of cinnamon, spices, delicious food, reading for hours, time to slow down. Time to hibernate and look within.
My abiding memory of Christmas in Africa is the abundance of gorgeous red flame lilies that grew all around our farm. We would go out and pick huge bunches to have in the house.
—Linda, reflecting on her childhood in Zimbabwe
Before we moved to the Middle East, Christmas meant darkness, fairy lights, snow, real Christmas trees, and chilly walks. Now Christmas means the best photo light and sunny weather, fires in the garden, fake Christmas trees of all colors, Arabic food, travel, and swimming.
We always pick a country and cook a big, fancy meal in that cuisine for Christmas Eve. My partner is Jewish, so we also celebrate Hanukkah together and light candles. It’s a beautiful combination of our traditions. Both are about bringing light into life, so it feels lovely.
—Laura, United States
Summer. Prawns. Mangoes. Champagne. Time off work. Long, lazy days. Meaningful celebrations. Discarding anything that does not feel authentic and wholehearted.
To me, Christmas is family, ritual, bonding, raising the drawbridge and shutting out the world to escape into a place outside of time.
CALM CONTEMPLATION: HERITAGE
- What is your view of traditions related to midwinter, such as decorating your home with evergreens and celebrating the winter solstice? Are these parts of your Christmas story?
- What sort of weather do you associate with Christmas? What impact does it have on how you expect to feel and what you do at this time of year?
- What other elements of Christmas are important to you? What particular traditions have been handed down through your family and become part of your personal Christmas story? (Some of these might cross over with stories one through four.) How do you feel about them? Do you want to maintain them or not?
- Do you have one particular memory associated with Christmas and your family’s heritage?
- What impact do your particular life stage and current circumstances have on how you think of Christmas?
- Is there anything about the Story of Heritage (including any expectations connected to it) that you find stressful or otherwise challenging?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how important are inherited family traditions, or those you have created yourself, at Christmas?
WRITING YOUR CHRISTMAS STORY To invite a calmer, more joyful celebration, look closely at the narrative you have built around Christmas and take ownership of it, or rewrite it.
When we think about what Christmas means to us, we recall both individual memories and an overarching narrative. We inherit much of the narrative, but also build on it as we go through life, making various decisions about whom to share it with, where to spend it, and how to celebrate. So our own narrative evolves and influences those of others around us. In this way, it becomes part of our legacy.
Much of the stress of Christmas comes from either not giving ourselves permission to evolve our inherited narrative, or from the pressure to evolve it into something that is out of alignment with what, deep down, we believe about Christmas. The more stressful we allow it to become, the less time we have to create new memorable moments and tune in to what should be the most joyful time of the year.
What we need is a way to marry what matters to us with what matters to those we love, and then let go of the rest.