Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Yet Another Christmas - 5 Ghosts of Christmas, Past and Present

TV ad: “It’s that time of year when the Christmas decorations come out”

Un-named TV watching friend: “Not it’s not, chap. Put them away.”

Yeah, I know, predictable. The Christmas-themed post – well, let’s get it out the way early. It may surprise regular readers that I do not consider myself a Scrooge: I, in theory, like Christmas – Or at least I used to. Not so terribly long ago, in my mid-twenties, I was, in fact, known for my love of the festival (or at least resistance to others’ Yuletide whinging and cynicism) – to the extent that for a few years at the shop I worked in I became, by default, the guy who voluntarily got in, and put, up the ‘decs’. But I can’t deny a tendency over the years towards increasing apathy, the unresponsive grunt or the weary sigh as the season kicks in – oh, that shit again. Another f***cking Christmas. This now happens automatically, and then I catch myself doing it and feel a bit sad – how did it get this way? How did it come to this? Well, it’s not so odd for a childless singleton of my age – it’d be far odder for someone in my ‘demographic’ to be getting all excited about it. But still, my feelings upon the seasonal season are complex, and there’s material to be mined here; so indulge me, if you will, in a slightly unwelcome stirring up of my Christmas past...

Ghost 1: The Loss of Faith

The first blow was, of course, when Father Christmas stopped existing. Christmas was a time of crisis-inducing excitement when I was a kid – it was by far the highlight of the year, and cast a feverish glow over the whole of Autumn and Winter. It wasn’t just the toy payload, although that should be mentioned – no adult gift will ever be as exciting as a Lego pirate ship. The only time I came near to this level of gift satisfaction as an adult is when I bought myself a guitar and amp-simulator/effects unit (with contribution from my parents as their gift) and waited until Christmas day to “open”/play with it. You’ve got to have something to play with... next year I think I might buy myself a Lego pirate ship.

No, it wasn’t just the toy payload, it was the magic. It was a time when the supernatural, the arcanely fantastic, actually, in reality, made itself tangible and touched your life – and was accepted by everyone as really, actually doing so. Supernatural goings on and fantasy beings from fantasy worlds were mainly consigned to books and TV, and I knew they were made up. Sure, there were also second-hand, supposedly true supernatural tales told by others – but at Christmas the magic rained down with a vengeance and happened to you, unambiguously, undeniably. And that was crisis-inducingly exciting – for a day-dreamy, imaginative (read: weird and arty) kid like me, it just grabbed my mind and took it far, far away.

So the year that my brother told me he had heard Father Christmas come into the room with our stockings, and then go and take a piss down the hall, was a little confusing. Would this magic being, un-encumbered by time, really be bound by such mundane, earthly functions? It was a little unglamorous, but I saw no reason why not. My brother (older than me) was more sceptical – he was suffering a Crisis of Faith (from which he never recovered – he was evidently Told shortly after this when he raised the issue with the folks).

I however, held out for another year. The topic was much debated amongst my peers in class. Some claimed to have been Told by older siblings – whisper it – there is no Santa Claus. Some had tales of finding the contents of their Christmas stockings in their parents’ wardrobe. The evidence was mounting, but I was in firm denial. I was one of the most vocal amongst the embattled Faithful. I constructed all kinds of ‘logical’ arguments to pooh-pooh the doubters, to try to make out that it was simply impossible that my parents could do it all, that it surely didn’t make sense. When would they buy all that stuff? Where did they store it –I ain’t seen no gifts in no wardrobe, fool! (I clearly didn’t have much grasp of what adults were capable of).

So, when, after Christmas, my Mum sat me down with my brother and they Told me, I felt more than a little embarrassed. I clearly remember thinking at that point: Just goes to show that, if you want to believe something enough, you will find arguments for it in the face of all evidence. I became aware of the power of self-delusion, in myself and others, which I like to think is a pretty damn profound thought process for someone of that tender age. The prospects for me ever being uncritically religious after that were pretty slim (though my early-mid teens did see some ill-defined wishy-washy religious dabbling). The repercussions for ‘magic’ in the world in general were also not lost on me – the world suddenly looked significantly duller, greyer and more uncertain.

Ghost 2: Cheese Mind

In my sixth-form years I got into the habit of making pointless analytical comment on aspects of culture that people largely took for granted. Which I still do, chronically. In fact, I studied in it at two universities and made a living out of teaching it for four years. It made me feel clever, and anyway, I couldn’t turn it off. I still can’t turn it off, which is sometimes a problem, and yes, it still does make me feel clever. Or alienated from my own society, one of the two.

Anyway, this was the point at which I started noticing that the paraphernalia of Christmas, all the motifs and symbols, were largely trotted out by people without any conscious thought whatsoever. All the guff – tinsel, bells, holly, trees, logs, santa hats, reindeer, stars, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – it was all on auto-pilot. Sure people are dimly aware of where this cultural bric-a-brac comes from – well, some of it, anyway – but no one really cares. Walking down the street with a friend I remarked that the glittery gold banners saying “Merry Christmas” in multiple neighbour’s windows may as well say “Cheese Mind” for all the thought that had gone into the greeting.

I had a point – the point is that the words “Merry Christmas” are not really words any more, just a sound, a polite seasonal code-utterance, a petrified shorthand signifier, which could be anything at all if enough people agreed to use it. Hence “Cheese Mind”. Why must Christmas always be Merry? What stops us using any other perfectly apt adjective? The fact of the greeting’s unchanging form shows that no real, personal consideration has gone into it at all. Ok, of course repetitive utterances like “Morning”, “Thankyou” or “Goodnight” are standardised for practical use – but actually, it is the same with most Christmas symbolism.

All of the common motifs you see around at Christmas will have their roots in some kind of folk tradition or practice, but no one feels they have to be clued up on this before they use them. It’s Christmas innit. Put a tree in your lounge. Put bells in your pop song. Something to do with Jesus in a manger and shepherds and that. This is most salient every time a Hollywood film tries to meddle with Christmas folklore – every new generation takes on the previous one’s traditions and symbology in an utterly superficial fashion, and then proceeds to ‘update’ them for ‘modern times’. The result is that you end up with a massively surreal mishmash of nonsensical, ill-fitting elements that they then have to try to force some kind of sense into. I mean, have you seen Santa Claus the Movie? The Santa Clause? Jingle All The Way? I mean – as an adult?

But this doesn’t just happen in films – it happens in society in general. When we look at other cultures’ rituals and traditions they often look utterly baffling, alien, and relentlessly oddball, and you wonder how they ever came up with that – well, Christmas is a case in point. Just think about it for a second – how would you explain it, in all its glorious absurd detail, to an alien (“So, tell me again, hu-man, where exactly does the flying fat man with the red and white arctic wear and the little people come into the equation? Hu-man?”).

The symbols used, see, over time and generations, become totally divorced from their origins, and just become groundless signifiers, spat out every year like festive tourettes. The map remains, but the territory has eroded away. As a yoof, “Cheese Mind” was simply a funny observation; but today, ill-informed and unthinking reflex touting of the thousand Christmas clichés you are bombarded with every year actually, actively rankles me – not alot, just a kind of low-level abrasive irritant. For f***’s sake, if you’re going to spray me with trite Christmas cliché, at least put some thought into it. At least get it right. It’s the same with Easter and it’s the same with vampire films – don’t get me started on vampire films.

Ghost 3: Don’t Look Back

But I still loved Christmas, in general. For a while, in my early twenties, I found new ‘magic’ in it by genning-up on the history and folklore of Christmas every Christmas time. Today’s traditions are an impossibly complex meshing of multiple strands – whilst nominally a Christian festival, with the Nativity, St. Nicholas and Good-Will to All Man, there is a heady, intoxicating cocktail of pagan Mid-Winter traditions that infuse the whole thing. Despite the St. Nicholas story, the figure of Santa Claus is clearly heavily derived from pagan folklore, a kind of wild-man-in-furs Green-Man/Dionysus nature spirit. All the nature stuff – gifts under trees, the holly and the ivy – is all obviously north-European, and at some point Christmas just merges with chilly north-European folklore in a fascinating way. Dark, icy north-European folklore, full of snow and forests and goblins. It’s all very Wicker Man – it’s Moominesque, but gorier, and I love it.

This worked for a while, but I still couldn’t help noticing a recurring malaise – pretty much every year began to seem like an anti-climax. You would catch yourself thinking that you just weren’t feeling as Christmassy as usual – as you should be – for the time of year. You would get frustrated at not being able to conjure more Christmas spirit with the usual devices that used to fill you with it. And then you would feel guilty about it. Why am I not Christmassy? Everyone else is. What a party pooper I am. The whole thing was just a little bit disappointing and – yes, frustrating; not because you were being a Scrooge, but because you were trying not to be – to recapture something just beyond your reach, that you expected to be on-tap.

Of course, it’s age, but we can be more specific: It’s not so much that I was too serious and responsible and adult for Christmas now, it’s that things had simply changed too much – a friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that it’s about connection with childhood. His girlfriend still feels Christmas acutely, but she currently lives with her parents in the same house that she did as a child, and they largely still adhere to the same routine.

For me those early childhood Christmases were so perfectly formed that they set the template rigidly – being a young family they were always spent at home with just us – my mother, father and brother, totally safe, contained, predictable, a hermetically sealed idyll. But the older you get, the more circumstances change, and every small upheaval and alteration takes you further away from recapturing the feelings you had in that idyll – never mind the more massive upheavals that come later as an adult. By your mid-late twenties there is very little left of that connection at all – but that connection is what you need to kick-start the Christmassy feeling first learnt in the childhood idyll, so, if you’re a soft nostalgic type like me, you scrabble after what strands you can find, but it’s frustrating and never quite does it. Time to give up – accept it, Christmas doesn’t mean the same thing now. Appreciate it for what it is today –don’t look back.

Ghost 4: Bad Christmases

So maybe my enthusiasm for the festive season was on the decline – but was it terminal? Who knows? Because what really ingrained today’s state of seasonal apathy was the one-two punch of 2007 and 2008: a right pair of Bad Chritmasses.

I won’t go into the gruesome detail, but 2007 saw a tragedy in the extended family that indirectly precipitated an all-out family feud, complete with ensuing logistical crises. It started, like the detonation of an unexpected H-bomb, at table during Christmas dinner, on Christmas Day afternoon.

By Christmas 2008 that state-of-affairs had stabilised, but there was more threat of tragedy (unrelated) in my immediate family, that I’m infinitely thankful eventually turned out ok – but at that time extreme worry and heaviness hung over us all. I also became aware as Christmas drew nearer, that the last year had actually, in some kind of irrational Pavlovian response, made me apprehensive rather than excited about it. In a way, I was right to be – something, as it turned out, was brewing. There was about to be a thunderous fall-out amongst my close friends, that I was unwittingly the catalyst for. For reasons I won’t go into here, Christmas Eve had been upsetting and set up an explosion of resentment and animosity amongst friends on New Year’s Eve that saw me start 2009 in a crippled ball of jangled nerves. Like a kicked puppy that’s accidently pooed on the carpet, I was, all at once, a little guilty at having pooed, very worried for who had stood in it, but also mortified and uncomprehending at the screaming it had set off - and the severity of the kicking I’d just taken.

Neither 2007 or 2008 were silly short-lived tantrums – they were complicated, deep-running, circumstance-changing divisions – whose repercussions are, to some extent, still felt today. There is nothing quite like the weight of mortality, combined with the hunted-animal feeling of dancing over yawning rifts that are opening up between your nearest and dearest, to make the tinsel sag and the carols ring hollow in the ears. Such immediate pressures and strains tend to force one out of Christmas mode – it all looks a little unimportant, and it’s hard to pay the festivities much attention when the harshness of the real world comes a-knocking. If I was underwhelmed by Christmas before, now I wasn’t ‘whelmed’ at all.

So in 2009 I decided to expect nothing. I wouldn’t feel like I had to feel Christmassy, and I’d make no apology for shrugging my shoulders at it. As it turned out I was rewarded with a thoroughly pleasant, warm, happy, low-key Christmas – nothing massively exciting, just... nice. There was even an impromptu staff gathering and guitar-led sing-along at work, the first time anything of the sort had been done (Dunkirk spirit – work was a mess at the time). And New Year at the local was a very sociable blast. All in all a satisfying Yuletide – so again, this year, I will expect nothing, force nothing. A lesson learnt.

Ghost 5: Not Christmas’ Marketing Demographic

“Christmas is about the children” people would say, and I would shake my head at it as another example of the serious, sensible platitudes thrown out by responsible middle-aged types who had lost all warmth, joy and humanity from their serious, sensible souls. Terminally cynical, I’d think – Christmas is about community, celebration of life, a time to relax and indulge and be grateful for what you’ve got and to the people around you. It’s not just a glorified kids party, a bit of glitter and fairytale and toys for the spoilt offspring – it’s a cosy, communal, hallowed tradition, it’s for everyone.

But they were right, at least in some respects. Because (as stated in Ghost 3), the further away my own childhood gets, the less it means, and I’d be a fool not to notice that the people my own age to whom Christmas really matters – even though they may gripe about it – are the people with children. To them it is a living tradition, vital and necessary once more. What has gone wrong here is that the cycle for me should have been renewed – at my age I should be settling down and producing squawking pink little people in order to take charge and do that Christmas shit with them. But I haven’t, so my connection with Christmassy-ness continues to dwindle into near insignificance. I’m far too old for my parents to be lavishing soft Christmassy nonsense on me – it’d just be silly and embarrassing – but I have no one myself to lavish soft Christmassy nonsense on either. So there is no soft Christmassy nonsense anymore – except for the clichéd impersonal stuff I’m unwelcomely bombarded with by the world in general.

If in any doubt about this diagnosis, I only need to look at any of the abundant Christmas propaganda. All of it – the ads, the TV, the movies, the events – all are aimed at families (young families), or every occasionally young couples (about to have families). The season is thus renowned for making lonely people feel their loneliness all the more acutely, and it’s no wonder. But even ignoring the loneliness factor (I can’t credibly strike that pose since it would be grossly unfair to my friends and family, who are just lovely and always around), it’s more simple alienation from Christmas. One day it just hits you: Christmas is not for me anymore. I am not Christmas’ marketing demographic.

What a sad man you are, Thomas

But I want to end on a positive note. I am still, generally, pro-Christmas – I will not become a full-blown griping Scrooge about it, because there is still something of the nostalgic, dreamy idealist in me: Yes, the unconscious, knee-jerk, ritual habits may annoy me as the same old nonsense is trotted out ad-nauseum; and the bandwagon-jumping marketing machine may make me grind my teeth – as it kicks in as soon as you get back off your summer holiday, desperately trying to squeeze some life into the usual tired clichés in an attempt to grab your attention (and your money).

But I will always have a soft spot for the atmosphere, the cosiness, the myth and folklore and flights of fancy – and the sheer, silly, glorious eldritch irrationality of it all. One over-riding goodness of the festive season is how it forces people to change their day-in-day-out patterns for a while, even if it’s in a ritualised way. Christmas is something going on, something large scale and communal, something happening – that everyone in the country (and many other countries), regardless of background or religious persuasion, cannot avoid being involved in, in some capacity. The Christmas-New Year period gears everything up to a feverish pitch of activity and then abruptly grinds everything briefly to a halt, before we are allowed to carry on again as normal – and I think this is a good thing. It calls an end to the year, marks the passing of time, brings things to a head, sweeps in a fresh phase – it changes things. It’s important to have these periodical events and shake-ups, and to mark them, lest life just plough on un-noticed, relentlessly uniform. So hooray for that. Oh, and the food’s good.

Gift suggestions for Thomas: Lego Pirate Ship