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What have big meals got to do with Christmas?

Updated Friday, 1 December 2023
We take a look at why feasting, giving gifts and spreading cheer goes hand in hand with the festive season. 

Christmas turkey prepared for dinner According to at least one carol, Christmas is a time of “good cheer”. Some people understand this to mean “good news” of salvation, redemption and a secure afterlife. They insist that the birth of Jesus Christ should be celebrated in ways that focus on that event alone. Whether or not this is the cause of the “good cheer” (or the content of the “glad tidings” in other versions), those singing “We wish you a merry Christmas” go on to ask for “some figgy pudding”. For them and many others, Christmas is a time of feasting and merriment. Gifts are given and received and people gather to eat more than usual. Generosity to less fortunate people is encouraged — just as the carol singers do when they sign “bring us some figgy pudding”. Originally, we’re told, the carol was sung outside wealthier houses by people whose Christmas festivities would have been less merry if they did not gain consumable rewards for their singing of seasonal greetings. A similar tradition may be suggested when the Live Aid charity song asks us to “Let them know it’s Christmas” by giving money for food, medicine and other necessities to those in need.

Christmas feasting, however, can be contentious. It is not only that family gatherings can exacerbate tensions and even animosities. It is not only that gift giving can become competitive or that it can result in disappointment for those who get new mittens instead of a new TV. It is more that some people think that Christmas feasting is a distraction from the “glad tidings” they associate with Jesus’ birth. Some of these people question the association of big meals and glittery decorations with questions of salvation. This is not a new concern. It has vexed some Christian preachers since this midwinter festival was added to Christian calendars sometime in the third or fourth centuries of the Common Era. They have worried that feasting and giving gifts will trap people in materialism and the “desires of the flesh”. Other Christians think that this birthday is an excellent cause for celebration of well-being and communal sharing. So Christmas can cause tensions not only in our ordinary family lives but also in the life of Church communities.

Let’s go back a bit. Christmas was added to Christian calendars in the third to fourth century. Maybe that seems odd. Christmas was not accepted in many Christian communities for a long time (and is still rejected by some Churches). Part of the reason for this was originally that birthdays were not particularly important events everywhere. Other events in people’s lives were considered more worthy causes of celebration. Also, Christianity typically has much more to do with Jesus’ death than his birth. This generated earlier and larger celebrations and rituals. In fact, when Christians did begin to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, they did not agree on when that should happen. There is nothing in early Christian texts to fix on a date. Eventually, however, other dates were rejected and 25th December was agreed on. Some of the reasons for that choice might explain why we eat big meals at Christmas (whether we are Christians or not).

25th December was chosen as an appropriate day on which to honour the birth of Jesus because it was already a popular festive time. It was part of the celebration of the winter solstice. Too often this is presented negatively. It was not only or primarily that Christian leaders wanted to take-over a popular festival and sanctify it for their own use. 25th December seemed an appropriate date for this birthday for the same reason that it was selected as the birthday of other divine or semi-divine people (Mithras and the Invincible Sun especially). In the middle of winter, around the shortest day and longest night of the year, the sun rises and sets at it most southerly point on the horizon (in the northern hemisphere). On 25th December, the days begin to lengthen. There is going to be more light, more warmth, more liveliness. What better cause could there be for celebration?

With celebrations at midwinter comes hope. We have got so far through the winter, we’ll get through the rest. Spring and summer will come. Let’s feast. Let’s give gifts. Let’s honour our good fortune by sharing what we have. That’s the mood of Christmas cheer and of other mid-winter festivities. It is at least part of why we eat too much at Christmas.  


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