Sunday 26 May 2019

Let's hear it for the Christmas Grinch

Peace, love and merriment are all very well, but what about some ­bitterness and puritanism for the festive season? Damian Corless reflects on the top Yuletide enemies

The Grinch
The Grinch
Former Justice Minister Kevin O'Higgins, who banned Christmas Day pub opening in 1927
Fidel Castro cancelled Christmas entirely in 1969 claiming it hindered the sugar harvest
Dirty Den spoled Angie's Christmas Day in EastEnders back in 1986
Oliver Cromwell, who outlawed festive street parties

The fourth biggest audience in British TV history was recorded on December 25, 1986 when over 30 million people - more than half the population - watched a half-purring, half-snarling Dirty Den hand divorce papers to his wretched wife Angie Watts in the Queen Vic as the half-sozzled regulars hawked each other hokey digital watches, blissfully oblivious to Den's ultimate act of Christmas Grinchdom.

This scene from EastEnders couldn't have played out here because both divorce and Christmas Day pub opening were outlawed at the time. Divorce was legalised in 1996, but dropping in to the local on Christmas Day remains a simple pleasure denied the Irish, who must vent their pent up dudgeons and danders in the pressure cooker of their own home.

Newly independent Ireland lost little time in clamping down on its citzens' freedom to get merry. But with the Good Friday pub ban to be lifted from next year, and the St Patrick's Day shut-down gone since 1960, Christmas Day 2018 will be the lone survivor of what was once a holy trinity of dry days.

Dr Seuss's Christmas Grinch turns 60 this Yuletide, but sworn enemies of the festivities are as old as Christmas itself, and alcohol has always been a top target. Exactly 100 years ago this week, on December 18, 1917, America's snowballing temperance lobby finally got their proposals for an outright booze ban on to the floor of the US Congress. Three years later Prohibition became law, and four years after that the New York Times told how rigorous enforcement by the police and coast guard was ruining the Christmas of 1924 for the small-time smuggler.

It reported: "Rum-running has altered almost unbelievably. The holiday aspect is gone. The rules are changed. The amateur is no more." In the early days of Prohibition, rum-running was minor-league stuff, carried out by dabblers smuggling rum from the Bahamas to Florida's speakeasies. By Christmas 1924, the small fry were getting scooped up as mob bosses like Lucky Luciano upped the profit margins by smuggling top brands of Canadian whiskey, French brandy and other spirits. It was the making of the Mafia.

Emboldened by the US Temperance Movement's success, and encouraged by its noisy Irish counterpart, Ireland's first Justice Minister Kevin O'Higgins could look back that Christmas of 1924 with satisfaction, having just brought in the first of two constrictive Intoxicating Liquor Acts.

Conservative revolutionaries

Cork TD John Daly seethed that the clampdown on Sunday morning opening was "a great hardship in country districts" as people "can hardly go to Mass at all without a drop". O'Higgins, who went on to inflict the Christmas Day ban in 1927, famously rejoiced: "We are the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution." For 'conservative' it's safe to read 'puritanical'.

The ultra-Catholics that formed the backbone of our early cabinets had far more in common with the puritanism of the hated Cromwellians than they could ever admit. For a millennium before the Reformation, the Christianised pagan festivities of mid-winter had acted as a safety valve for letting off social tensions at a time when a community's food, resources, spirits and tolerance were at their lowest.

Instead of acknowledging the therapeutic value of this break when everyone could let their hair down, the Puritans growled that not only was there no scriptural date for Christ's birth, but that this made-over pagan feast was an affront to Christian values. Philip Stubbe, in his Anatomie Of Abuses, framed the mindset: "More mischief is committed than in all the year besides. What masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and what-not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm."

So when they seized power following the English Civil War, the Puritans cancelled Christmas, outlawing street parties, bell-ringing, spruced-up trees, mince pies, the lot. In parts of England, the ban was welcomed, in others it was ignored, and in some it provoked riots. What upset the Puritans as much as the boozy frivolity was the concept of 'Misrule', which was especially close to the hearts of the native Irish. For the majority, Misrule was the collective safety-valve at its most fun-filled, where the social order was briefly stood on its head. In Ireland, for instance, the Christmas frolics closed with Nollaig na mBan, when the men of the house would wait hand and foot on their womenfolk, while the ladies put their feet up for one day of the year. That, at least, was the theory.

To the Puritans, Misrule and Nollaig na mBan were a Satanic subversion of God's natural order. While many amongst the Anglo-Irish ruling class continued to celebrate old style, they didn't go broadcasting the fact in the wake of Cromwell's savage rampage. We do know, however, that in 1654, at the height of the Puritans' bid to suppress Christmas, the Lord of Cork openly flouted the ban.

Puritanical patriots

The puritanical patriots of WT Cosgrave's first administrations were keen to let our biggest trading partner Britain know that the Free State was wide open for business.

Pitching itself as even more patriotic, Fianna Fáil brought about a tariff war with Britain weeks before Christmas 1932, which skyrocketed the price of imported toys, cakes, puddings and sweets, forcing many householders to cancel their annual orders. De Valera insisted that Irish manufacturers would raise their game to plug the gap, but at such short notice they couldn't.

Despite the price hikes, the British firm Maynards pressed ahead with scaled-down deliveries of novelties including "The Original Lucky Snowman: Chock full of mysterious numbered parcels containing assorted toys", and "Smokers' Outfits: The ever-popular smokers' cabinets just like Daddy's, containing chocolate cigars, cigarettes, matches, etc".

By the 1960s, with Dev retired to the Áras, FF insisted they'd ditched their old protectionist economic policies, but they made an exception for Christmas. As with TV, cinema, schooling and everything else, the State insisted it knew best when it came to toys. There were tariff-protected factories in Dublin, Cork, Mayo and Galway, producing scooters, tricycles, seesaws and wheelbarrows, while cottage workshops turned out clunky wooden craft dolls, prams, forts and puzzles. For our leaders, these playthings served the dual purpose of supporting Irish jobs while keeping out toys that kids actually wanted made in godless Communist Poland, China and Czechoslovakia.

The State even attempted to enlist school principals in a campaign to badmouth foreign toys to their pupils.

But the kids didn't want worthy-but-dull varnished wood knicknacks. With not a patriotic thought between them, they wrote to Santa for the fantastic plastic and shiny metal objects of desire stamped with 'Made In Taiwan', and with those telltale marks of quality straight from the TV ads, like Waddington and Mattel.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Cuba's Fidel Castro was getting busy with his Red marker. Having struck out Santa, Rudolph and the decorated pine upon taking power in 1959, Castro cancelled Christmas entirely in 1969, claiming it hindered the sugar harvest.

With Pope John Paul II about to visit, he restored it on a once-off basis for 1997, but the will of the people trumped that of their dictator, and - in true happily-ever-after style - Christmas has been celebrated in Cuba every year since.

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