What was Christmas like fifty years ago in England and today?

Christmas, as we know it today, resembles nothing of its past. A lot of what happened would shock us today.

3 mins read
Frankenmuth, United States [ Photo: Aaron Burden/Unsplash]

All I saw of snow before I landed in England some fifty years ago, was the scene of winter on a Christmas card. It was an experience I can never forget, of hands and ears frozen and people throwing snowballs for fun at each other, whilst building a snowman outside their homes and decorating the Christmas tree with fancy lights inside.

Christmas, as we know it today, resembles nothing of its past. A lot of what happened would shock us today. Binge eating and drinking, in many forms, rowdiness lubricated by alcohol on trains and the Underground on Christmas Eve, made travel a danger. Merrymaking would edge into making trouble. Today, there are cameras on trains and at stations and security is tight.

It was then mostly a family occasion. The gathering of family and friends the night before Christmas, for carols, mistletoe and mulled wine. Whilst on Christmas Day, 25 December, it was Christmas lunch, called “Dinner” with turkey and trimmings, served with cranberry sauce, mince pies and plum pudding for afters, shared with inner members of the family circle, with exchange gifts before the revelry.  

Christmas then and now, is a fusion of the pious and the pagan, the sacred and the profane. Most of its traditions are historical either borrowed or relatively recent.

According to the latest Census, in 2021 Britain is a minority Christian country, People of other faiths are now celebrating Christmas, more than the native population, which seems strange.

But besides the changing fashions of consumerism and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, there remains something that has outlived, outlasted centuries of pagan culture and the real enchantment of the spirit of fellowship, the good tidings at Christmas time and the love of God to be one amongst us.

Some of the things people hardly talk about now is the increasingly secularised holiday, marked by a season of good cheer and festive fun, punctuated by long-forgotten English superstitions or traditions of mistletoe and wine, Santa and the reindeer, the late Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Message, now King Charles III first Christmas TV Message and Pope Francis’“Urbi et Orbi” message to the world.

Understandably this year there is only hope of a subdued celebration with all the travel strike chaos and cost of living inconvenience.

Besides, divisions in life today and years past, go to the very heart of Christmas, to the gatherings at Midnight Mass, to the celebrations at the dining table with fun and frolic.

The shifting Christmas landscape

Times have changed in a big way in these fifty years. What would you do if you could get the time back that you spent shopping for gifts and for food for Christmas?

Back then, people thought it was weird to stop at one shop for everything you needed or wanted. You had the butcher for your meat and turkey, the bakery for your cakes, likewise, it was so-called specialist places where you did your shopping. You could do the “normal” thing and do your High Street shopping errands individually, going shop to shop.

There were no all-embracing Supermarkets for all your needs. Time was not at a premium then? What surprises most people today is; how much cheaper it was than going shop to shop, looking for bargains especially as Christmas presents, without today’s inflation.

What you now think might be a bargain at today’s Supermarket, could actually still be full of hidden costs. We then had value for money or at least thought we had, by shopping at Woolworth’s for value, now that choice has gone, disappeared with the passage of time? But we now have Prime Mart instead

What about other changes in these years?

Convenience and choice was lacking years ago. Today you can forget about the chore of meals and the joys of cooking your Christmas Family Dinner, with food delivered to your doorstep. Years ago we did not have the convenience of so-called “perfect selection” of measured portions of food, choice diets for vegans and vegetarians, and specialist counters for specialist health foods, less salt and less sugar diets. Today, we have “free from” food.

Today everything is wrapped up in measured units of calories and weight markings. This cuts out the stressful meal planning, as well as the wastage which makes it easier by selection of the meal type that is right for you. There is so much of choice today than in years past. Today, we have shelves stacked with varied variety. The choice is unbelievable. But, at the same time, there is a “cost factor”? Have we over the years become lazy?

What ways has Christmas changed?

The festive season may be packed with traditions, but Christmas is also an occasion which has changed with the times, but with religion focussed on the love of God for Man. It is down to world events, advances in people’s behaviour and perception, as well as technology or simply popular additions to the celebrations that never went away.

With the postal strike, people are resorting to sending “E-Cards” on the internet, instead.

With the rail strike people are staying at home instead of travelling.

With the Nurses and Ambulances on strike, we guess there would be less crowds at A&E?

With regard to the reflection of life in giving gifts, and toys, in particular, some companies are making toys more eco-friendly. Some companies are also cutting down on single-use plastic and boosting sustainability. Lego is a toy that is still very popular as a gift for children, but plant-based colours are now in use.

Parents are setting up cash Trust Funds for children this year, instead of gifting toys. Although Christmas will be very different for many this year, the spirit of Christmas will still linger on amidst the difficult times.

Victor Cherubim

Victor Cherubim is a London-based writer and a frequent columnist of the Sri Lanka Guardian

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