Looking Back On Christmas 20 Years Ago to See if the World Really Was a Better Place

We all remember the past as a happy time, but was it actually as pleasant as we think?

Source and thumbnail image - BBC

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Christmas is a nostalgic time of year. As a child, the excitement comes from your indoctrination into your parents' traditions: what time you open presents, how long you cook the roast potatoes and how much Baileys you drink with breakfast. Then, as an adult, you spend the rest of your life trying to replicate those traditions in the hope that you will somehow recapture that overwhelming mixture of sickness and excitement you used to get in the pit of your stomach – back when Christmas meant more than just a chance to sit in a chair for an entire day without having to look at a spreadsheet.


Yet, as much as we repeat these rituals, it's never quite the same. We wake up on Christmas morning with aching joints; we eat too much in the first 40 minutes of the day; we're given exactly €15 worth of iTunes vouchers; and before long we are pinging pistachio shells anywhere within a five-mile radius of the waste-paper basket while the Strictly special blares away in the background. None of this is to adopt some Grumpy Old Men "isn't Christmas shit" approach – it isn't. Christmas is a solid 8/10 experience. But there's no ignoring the strangely melancholic truth that, deep down, we all wish we were five years old again. We all wish Father Christmas was still real and we could still pull off a little flashing Rudolph bowtie.

That said, was Christmas actually better back then? Back before Dogge Doggelito sang over Elgiganten's adverts and your mum spent the entire day trying to set up her new iPad with all the information from the old one. Or does it just feel that way now that you get a hangover after eating one too many chocolate liqueurs? Well, we can't actually travel back in time, but what we can do is travel back 20 years via the power of the internet, revisit what was on television and make grand, spurious claims based on that.

So let's do it:


The Spice Girls here with the first of their three consecutive Christmas Number 1s, and with a video that in retrospect looks an awful lot like a Littlewoods advert. I like this song a lot; it's familiar and cosy – a love song that says: "Tonight we're going to have some really nice, mutually enjoyable sex, and then we'll sling on a pair of big roll-neck sweaters and eat a box of Maltesers beside a roaring fire." The Spice Girls were a more consistent band than Blur, so as far as revisiting 1990s pop culture goes this is an exceptionally welcome memory. Oh, and the chances are Christmas number 1 this year is going to be Honey G, or some military-doctors covering "You Raise Me Up", or whatever sad-lad piano-cover soundtracked the John Lewis Christmas advert. So far, Christmas 1996 is looking empirically better.


What wouldn't you give – what wouldn't you fucking give – to turn on the 6PM news and hear the newsreader say, "In London, a light dusting of snow at 5 o'clock this morning was the first in 20 years"? What wouldn't you give to enjoy a delightful little story about "weather obsessed gamblers" getting one over the pesky bookmakers by enjoying the first white Christmas in the capital since 1970? What wouldn't you give to return to a time when snow was even possible – before every Christmas day was "the warmest on record"? What wouldn't you give to see this bloke…

…making headlines instead of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Theresa May and every other poached, white, wrinkly face currently stretched across each and every news channel?


It's no secret that, on Christmas Day, the residents of Albert Square can't enjoy any turkey until they've fucked, killed and psychologically destroyed their loved ones, and 1996 was no different. Grant – despite being married to a pregnant Tiffany – is bonking Lorraine Wicks in a bedroom above the Queen Vic. Not only that, but apparently Phil Mitchell spent the entirety of 1996 drunk. Anyway, as you can imagine, the whole thing ends with about 12 Mitchells shouting "you're aat of order" and "shat up you cow" at each other, until Peggy flips her lid and kicks them all out. I'd wager, given that the most exciting thing Eastenders has done in recent years was briefly reuniting the Mitchell brothers, that it's safe to say these halcyon days back in 1996 were superior – even if the idea of two bald siblings shagging their way around every available 20-something woman in their neighbourhood remains as implausible as the existence of Father Christmas.


I can't find any clips of this, but apparently Curly – the one who sort of looked like Harry Potter if he'd never found out he was a wizard and instead ended up living alone in Bradford – snogged someone, or something. I've only ever watched bits of Coronation Street in passing at Christmas, so I sort of find it similar to the very long ongoing conversation I have with my mum's friend Keith every single year on Christmas Eve about what he's up to now he's retired. Whatever happens to the rest of the world, however much I tune in or out, Coronation Street will be meandering through sequences of suffocating, suburban nothingness, and Keith will be mumbling about Airfix.


Noel's Christmas Presents was a mixture between the Pride of Britain awards and a pagan ritual. The setup seems to be that Noel surprises some deserving person shortly before Christmas by knocking on their door and revealing that he knows everything about their personal life, including a recent hardship they have undergone, before giving them a gift they'll never forget. Trouble is, in true Edmonds style, everything he says sounds so serious that he constantly comes across like he's arrived at their house to inform them that their children have been involved in a traffic collision, which sort of takes the Christmassy sparkle out of the whole thing. Still, though, better than Text Santa.


Okay, there is a lot to process and explain here, so let's try and deal with this 29-second trailer for Des O'Connor's Christmas with the Stars piece by piece.

  • Joe Pasquale here with a camel. How did he get famous in the first place? Why did he sound like a dying old lady? What happened to Joe Pasquale? Has anyone done a check to find out where he is? Maybe we should do a quick check just to make sure he isn't trapped in a lift somewhere in the old Granada studios or something, squeaking up the vent, trying to get someone to help him out.
  • The Two Fat Ladies were a pair of TV cooks who I seem to remember were pretty big in the 1990s. They are both dead now.
  • Lily Savage was a very popular female comedian who transitioned into Paul O'Grady sometime in 2003, I believe. Her main schtick was saying stuff like "Oooh, I'd let Julio Iglesias stuff my turkey." Popular with my mum.
  • Julio Iglesias and Diana Ross sharing a sofa here – a gentle reminder of a time before every Christmas musical guest was contractually obliged to be Michael Buble.
  • Des O'Connor, for those who don't remember, was a comedian and presenter with a big syrupy, biscuit-like head. He often hosted big "an evening with" type shows on ITV, just like this one, until more recently he was given a breakfast show with Melanie Sykes.


If Des' Christmas extravaganza teaches us anything about the Christmas of 1996, it's that we had fewer options open to us. In a time before everyone had their own screen, and every screen hosted a thousand different channels, it was up to shows like this to try and aggregate an hour's worth of entertainment that the whole family would enjoy. Or at least that the whole family would pretend to enjoy. The TV might not have been better, but the point is it was all we had. Maybe now, with all the options at our disposal, we've lost sight of what it's really all about?

Sure, if you don't like what's on TV you go spend the whole day staring at your phone, but the true meaning – the meaning that Noel and Des spent years trying to get across to us – is being together, regardless of whether or not you are enjoying the television. A group of people, sat in silence, half asleep, half willing Doctor Who to finish.


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