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Bewildering Stories

Reflections at Epiphany

Christmas 2012: Original and New Formula

James Graham

If, like me, you’ve had a mixed sort of Christmas, you may be left wondering what it was all about; what meaning it has, if any. Well, it all depends on which of two Christmases we’re talking about.

When I was a child in the immediate post-war years, there was only one. We went to church. Presents were exchanged among the family, and mine were — until I forget what age — delivered by Santa Claus, who filled my sock with sweets and little toys, and took the shortbread and ginger wine left out for him. We had roast chicken followed by Christmas pudding.

What was entirely lacking — and I’m not wearing rose-tinted specs — was commercialism. Nobody was selling Christmas; Christmas wasn’t a vehicle for shifting massive quantities of goods, including shed-loads of junk. It wasn’t a brand. There was a tree and lights in the main street of town, but the lights were a communal gesture to cheer the dark winter days, avant-couriers of Spring. Now the lights seem to say, ‘Max out your credit card’.

Christmas still has religious meaning. For believing Christians its message is a source of strength, ‘Good tidings of great joy’ arriving just as the winter solstice has passed. Even a humanist like myself can go to a Christmas Eve service, preferably in a city cathedral, and hear music of some quality. You can hear too — if they still use the Authorised Version of the Bible — some passages of very fine English prose read aloud. The reading tells of the birth of the elusive figure known as Jesus Christ (what was his real name?) who deserves to be remembered, even if much of his life and magic is a fictional construct. That occasion when, with tremendous courage and flair, he saved — or is represented as saving — a poor woman from being stoned to death for adultery, is enough claim to fame in itself.

It’s not the fault of ordinary Christians that fundamentalists the world over are consumed with hate and that religion — including Christianity — still fuels conflict. The most I can make of Christmas is to try to set aside the historic crimes and misdemeanours of Christians — Crusades, the Inquisition, child abuse, denial of the rights of women — and appreciate its literature and music as a foreigner might, finding its mythology strange but fascinating. I’m sure believing Christians can take the aforementioned iniquities into account and justify their faith in spite of them.

New Formula Christmas can be illustrated as follows. One of the gifts my wife and I received from our family was a food hamper, a box almost too heavy for one person to lift. It contained some items that were to our liking, and some that were not. A jar of tomato pickle, a pack of Colombian coffee, a jar of sweet pickled peppers, a can of lobster soup: these are fine and we will use them. But there were soups, preserves and condiments we don’t care for and won’t use: a dozen or so items in all. Obviously someone else receiving this gift would have different preferences; not many would want to use everything they found in the big box. The unwanted stuff can be given away; we don’t have to trash any of it except an odd item that may be to nobody’s taste.

The hamper is a modest example of Big Santa’s marketing practice. At Christmas, much more than at any other time, the retail business manages to persuade consumers to rise to a cloud nine of consumption, a quite different consumer mindset such that we will buy absolutely anything. We will buy plastic penguins with plastic carrots for beaks; we will buy a plastic fireplace decoration that plays a metallic ringtone-style ‘Jingle Bells’ every time anyone goes within six feet of it. And — on a marginally more subtle level — we will buy assortments that contain things we like and things we don’t like. Including, quite possibly, items that have been low on Big Santa’s bestseller list; it’s a much better strategy than special offers or triple points vouchers.

It doesn’t matter what we do with the unwanted stuff. Even if we trash all of it, it doesn’t matter, because Big Santa has got our cash, or Big Santa’s little credit-card helpers have got our pin number. In the natural world, water flows downwards; in the unnatural consumer world, money flows upwards. Up the Niagara of Christmas it rushes in tremendous spate, up from the plains to the high plateau where one man has more wealth than any million of the people of the lowlands.

I recall Christmases of sixty or more years ago with some nostalgia, but some detachment too. Perhaps if X-Boxes had been available I would have wanted one instead of the wooden toy locomotive I propelled around the furniture from country station to terminus. But keeping nostalgia at bay, it seems to me that Christmas then was much more self-generated, family-generated, community-generated. People recreated it every year out of their own resources.

We need not perform the last offices over the traditional Christmas. Not yet. Quite recently, after a lapse of one generation, I found myself running a children’s party for my grandchildren and their friends. A session of party games would be the highlight, I thought — until I discovered that some of the children had never heard of Pass the Parcel or Musical Chairs, and had to be taught how to play. In the end it came off pretty well, enjoyed by all except perhaps a few who were a little averse to new-fangled ideas. I’m sure many grandparents, and even young parents, still do Christmas in this way. Maybe we could go even further, and revive the tradition of having a day of good fun and leaving the boxes — including the X-Boxes — until Boxing Day.

The consumerfest has eaten its way into folk tradition. On December 23rd, sitting in my car in a line of cars backed up for half a mile on the approach road to the local reindeer-festooned retail park, I asked myself what I was doing there, and the answer came in a flash. Big Santa has got me. Needing, as we all do, food for the next few days, I had set out for where the food was, only to fall into Big Santa’s trap. The seasonal rush is no new thing, but I had forgotten the sheer scale of it. And there was, literally, no going back.

Two Christmases. A people’s midwinter festival, a festival of light, friendship, children’s play and good food, with or without participation in a cristes mæsse, a religious observance. And the other Christmas, which so far I have hesitated to call Consumermas, an ugly coinage for something that annually trespasses on our lives and as often as not turns the old festival into a time of stress and anxiety. I cling to the hope that the old ways will survive — and evolve — and Consumermas will at least fall into some kind of perspective.

Copyright © 2012 by James Graham

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