As another year eases down with scarcely a bump onto the runway leading to Christmas, even this occasional curmudgeon must admit that he likes this time of year. Indeed, it is probably the single most Sprezzatura event in the calendar – the time when even those who progress through life heads down, pedalling furiously are supposed to let up and acknowledge that life can be good. Indeed, even should be good. That we can spend a little time just being mellow, and appreciating and sharing our comforts.
I tend to feel, though, that rather too much hinges on one day; particularly if the religious side of Christmas is of no concern, then quite why the rituals of one particular day are put on such a pedestal is rather mystifying. I suppose the whole thing needs a focus in order to be what it is – but it is also worth remembering that 25th December is not pivotal everywhere; for some, Christmas Eve is of more importance. And that’s without the flip side of the coin, of course, namely that rituals can easily become a rods of unwelcome familial ‘duty’ for the back, even without added complications such as for those who must work on 25th.
I have always preferred the growing anticipation of Advent to The Day itself, not least because there is longer to savour it. It is not as though there is a scarcity of short, dark days in need of uplifting…
I think one of the great things about the online world is the way in which one gains a far greater sense of things happening elsewhere, than was the case in the bad old days when most of us were much more locked into our respective narrow national conversations. It is great that I can watch a webcam from Spitsbergen or Namibia as I have been doing in recent days. And I can see how many of my favourite places are preparing.
Especially in the past two years, I have appreciated the opportunity, courtesy of YouTube, to take walks through cities, rides on trains, and view domestic interiors and routines across the world, that has done a little to make up for the total absence of physical travel. In recent weeks, I have visited the decorated streets of a dozen countries, and strolled virtually through the Christmas markets of some of my favourite continental cities.
I will leave the real Bah-Humbug to the Christmas Nationalist (my description) who seemed incapable of letting even the season of goodwill interrupt his steady stream of Brexit tosh, to the irritation of quite a few. It was not I who pointed out that nearly every ‘British’ Christmas tradition is actually a continental import. Speculation followed about just what was the original, insular British Christmas; it’s almost impossible to say, of course, given the amount of cultural to-and-fro that has always existed between these islands and the rest of the world, and the near-continent in particular.
In true Brexit style, the CN seemed not to be listening, however, as his various totems were overturned. What is apparently important is that we have OUR OWN British Christmas now! Forget all those lousy foreign imports such as panettone, lebkuchen, stollen, Christmas markets, turkeys, port, and Christmas trees for heavens’ sake. It felt as though The Queen at 3pm was all there was left. And that I can well do without…
Christmas is the time of year when our supposedly shared values and culture are most on display – be that through the general belief in “peace and goodwill”, the way in which a formerly Christian festival is now the closest thing we have to a secular, global one, and (sadly) the extent to which we have let it become an orgy of commercialised material consumption.
Culture in this sense is not the stuff of museums; it is simply what all people everywhere value and do in their lives; at this time of year, that is more on show that usual.
Yet there is a tension here: at a time of supposed togetherness, individual self-determination has never been stronger; while Christmas as an international (retail?) phenomenon still seems to be growing, I suspect there is more divergence than ever in what individual people actually do. And so, we arrive at a cultural pick-and-mix, where we are all left to compile our own particular versions of Christmas, as with everything else. They may not always mesh well; CN and I found ourselves on resolutely opposing sides. The defender of British libertarianism in effect demanded that we should all now follow the same narrow, laid-down (imagined?) British-only version of Christmas Freedom – whereas I, a little to my surprise, ended up advocating the kind of cultural magpie-ism that might also be the source of some of my worst Christmas nightmares.
It can turn into a very personal minefield (I feel a post on the art and politics of present giving coming on…). Personally, I am very happy that my festive season is now a little internationalised in a way it wasn’t as a child: there are Italian and German goodies in the cupboard alongside the Christmas Cake; there are Scandi-styled decorations on the tree rather than tinsel; I enjoyed my virtual walks through the Christmas markets, and I take my present-giving lead from what I have seen elsewhere. The images in my mind are, if anything, more of Christmas in Milan, Berne, Strasbourg or Lille than closer to home. Except, to varying degrees, that is my cultural home – it has all melded into a comfortable, pleasurable whole that reflects my sense that home is no longer constrained by a narrow stretch of water. We are all parts of the same thing, which is in a sense, surely part of the message of Christmas.
But there is also the risk of disappointment; as the options have multiplied, we cannot assume that even those nearest to us share the same tastes and values. Despite my best efforts, I struggle to appreciate many aspects of the home-grown effort. It’s not just the scam “Winter Wonderland” mudbaths; the homegrown ‘Christmas Markets’ we have visited have always been disappointing jamborees of junk food and tack – pale imitations of the continental versions; why do we always have to adulterate and dumb down? I don’t understand, either, those who want flashing plastic widget-fixers for presents; a present, even a small one, should be something special. I don’t understand the need to get paralytic or to make the outside of my home look like Piccadilly Circus. That said, I have yet to find anywhere in the U.K. whose municipal lights come even close to the spectacular displays found on the continent. Many here are sad, embarrassing and/or garish.
I still don’t understand where the instinct for Christmas to be a time of either Bah-Humbug or inane bad taste came from (whether tacky pullovers, weak T.V. or daft behaviour). My best guess is the only other nation that seems to do Christmas as badly as the U.K. – that found on the other side of the Atlantic, whose “Holiday Season” seems even more toothless than ours. But then, they have Thanksgiving too… Noel Edmonds may have a fair bit to answer for, too. I suppose the answer is that we are discussing a nation that largely doesn’t know how to enjoy itself gracefully in normal times, so there is no reason why Christmas should be any different. It either ends up hidebound, forced, daft or paralytic, while those who beg to differ are (mercifully) left to their own devices, but tacitly agreed to be party-poopers.
But we’re back where we started: Christmas is about Sprezzatura to all wo/men – and as in the rest of the year, the British are not collectively very good at it.
I’m not a real curmudgeon: I enjoy Advent and Christmas – because all it really does is amplify my normal approach:
A (good) Life is for Life, not just for Christmas.