The undercover elf

Lucinda Murphy

It is often with looks of wry bemusement that my PhD topic is greeted. Yes, I am the girl who gets to do Christmas every day! It seems that, for many, this ‘wish come true’ seems just a little too fun, a little too close to home, too personal, to be worthy of anything resembling serious academic study. 

And yet, it is precisely the surprised smile of delight that appears on people’s faces during these conversations, precisely the alarmed concern for preserving the sanctity of my own Christmas experiences, precisely this quality of intimacy, which I believe reveals something of real interest for the study of contemporary values and beliefs. 

Christmas in Britain, as indeed elsewhere, appears to evoke a deep-seated sentimentality in people; a sentimentality for a utopian world of magical enchantment and childhood innocence which, more often than not, holds an active mirror up to the very root of our hopes, our fears, our values, our desires, our disappointments, our ideals, and our beliefs. 

My research seeks to delve into the complexity of this emotional matrix; to explore what these kinds of commitments and attachments might reveal about the nature of religion, culture, value, and belief in Britain today. In so doing it aims to consider more closely the multiple ways in which people make sense of and cultivate ‘Christmas’ as they navigate their way through the life-course, and through all the transitions which come along its path. 

Tell us about the fieldwork you carried out

To look at this in more depth, I carried out ethnographic fieldwork across four main stages upon which we see ‘Christmas’ coming to be performed in this context by people at various different stages of their lives:

  1. A primary school
  2. A charitable initiative run by North Tyneside Council aimed at providing lunches for socially isolated people on Christmas day
  3. Carol Services held at Durham Cathedral
  4. A Father Christmas grotto (where I magically transformed myself into an undercover elf!)

Alongside this, I launched what I called, ‘The Festive Log Research Project’, which allowed people to follow the project online and log their own stories as part of one big community logging of Christmas. I then spent the rest of my fieldwork conducting in-depth interviews with various people I had met across my travels. 

What do you believe is unique about Christmas

As a prime national holiday, and indeed now globally significant, cultural occasion which dominates and pervades both public and private landscapes and commercial markets at this time of year, Christmas is practically impossible to avoid.

In the context of an increasingly pluralised society, I believe Christmas represents a distinctly unique moment of collective focus, and an especially fertile platform for collective meaning-making (or as many of my participants put it, ‘memory’/’tradition’ making), which is seemingly able to accommodate a whole host of differing religious, non-religious, and/or cultural perspectives, and which – irrespective of whether or not, or how, people choose to celebrate it – thereby provides us with an especially apt marker of wider patterns of value, identity, and belonging. 

What surprised you most in your research

In tracing the ways in which Christmas comes to be experienced across a range of settings and worldviews, much of my work has been about attempting to crosscut the go-to debates which have dominated both colloquial and scholarly discourse around the more classically conceived ‘religious’ vs. ‘secular’ associations of Christmas. I wanted to cast a broader anthropological lens upon the intra-influencing varieties of transcendence which become so clearly manifest in experiences of the festival, and which are expressed through the means of the magical mood and/or charismatic energy popularly referred to as the ‘Christmas spirit’, and/or ‘Christmas magic’.

One of the things that has surprised me most in my study of this is the ways in which narratives of loss come to inflect such experiences of transcendence. Irrespective of their personal worldview, almost everyone I spoke to across my research thought that the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ had been, or was in danger of being, lost! Hence, (as per every good Christmas movie plot-line!) the ‘magic’ of Christmas for many seemed to be about the annual experience of re-discovering or re-experiencing the ‘true meaning’ or ‘spirit’ of the festival in the midst of their celebrations. 

What’s next for you? 

Having hung up my elf shoes (at least for now!), I am now hoping to apply some of the more pastoral experience and implications of my work in this area to thinking further about how best to support people as they process the various transitions of their lives. My research assistant, Gelf the Elf is in the meantime very keen to see if we can spread the Christmas magic even further by getting our research published for more people to read!

Discover more 

To find out more about Lucinda’s research see: Lucinda’s log   

Find out more about opportunities for postgraduate study in the Department of Theology and Religion 

Lucinda Murphy

My research seeks to explore what these kinds of commitments and attachments might reveal about the nature of religion, culture, value, and belief in Britain today.

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