The church Christmas tree went up this afternoon; an event that would have been regarded as pagan or Popish, or both, amongst some evangelical circles in the North. One minister declared that he would not have a Christmas tree in his church because its popularity owed itself to its pagan associations. Another lost a number of families from his congregation when he first held a service on Christmas Day, an innovation they perceived as the first step in a Romeward slide, prompting them to join a congregation where the church building would be very firmly locked on Christmas morning. Even the word ‘Christmas’, Christ-Mass, caused problems to some people.
In childhood days, the idea that Christmas decorations would cause people annoyance, or that Christmas itself would be something they would refuse to celebrate, would have seemed very strange.
We were not religious, but nor was there any thought that any of our celebrations were pagan, (and one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in England with stronger pagan associations than the area around Glastonbury).
One of the favourite memories of Christmas in primary school days was making Christmas ‘candles’. These were toilet roll tubes covered in crepe paper with a green crepe frill around the base; a slit was cut into the paper covering the top of the tube and a ‘flame’ cut from red or orange paper was inserted. The people with the best candles were those who had brought the tubes from kitchen roll or tin foil. Apparently, toilet roll tubes are now banned on health grounds; it is a wonder that an entire generation of English school children ever survived and that Blue Peter was not banned for encouraging dangerous habits.
Crepe paper provided much, maybe most of the Christmas decoration. Rolls of it were twisted and pinned to ceiling beams and curtain rails. The crepe chains were supplemented by paper chains made with strips of coloured paper turned into links of chain with gum from a glass bottle with a rubber top. There were paper balls and bells that concertinaed flat for storage, but when opened were in quarters of red and blue and yellow; the paper was barely more substantial than tissue and the decorations were easily torn.
The baubles on the Christmas tree were brittle and would sometimes smash if dropped, tiny shards of glass being scattered across the floor. Most of the tree decorations seemed to have been used year upon year; though when you are eight years old, two years is a lengthy tradition.
There was a great innocence about it, and a great sense of magic. The presents are now hard to remember; they were certainly not nearly as plentiful.
Santa will sit beside the church Christmas tree after church tomorrow; he is coming along to collect people’s letters. His presence would undoubtedly only add to the irritation of those who regard the whole thing as pagan.
If churches could capture one sense of the wonder felt by children at Christmas, they would be places very different from what they have become.