Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just another day in Britain PLC

Enough.

I've always hated that term - "Britain PLC". I think the people who use it think they're being cool, like it's a hip way to refer to the country. Business and branding are sexier than dull old concepts like statehood and nationality.

That's one reason I hate it. The other is that it strips us of something very important. PLCs have stakeholders, workers and customers. Whichever one you are, the relationship you have is purely a financial one. If you're a shareholder, you can buy or sell your shares and your influence in the company is directly proportional to how much money you've spent on those shares. If you're an employee you get paid for the work you do. You can leave the company if you wish, or you could be fired. And if you're a customer, you have a choice of companies from which to buy.

When we talk about "Britain PLC", I'm not sure which of these relationships is meant to be the parallel of being a citizen, but none of them are suitable. A PLC answers only to its shareholders. A country has other responsibilities that go way beyond the financial. Citizens have rights that are nothing to do with financial clout. And I worry that we forget that by trying to sex the whole thing up.

The trouble is, we see everything in financial terms. I just received a press release that talks about how it's all very well chilling out over Christmas, but if we're not careful it could take as long as a week to get back up to speed in January, and this would of course be a bad thing for the economy.

I wonder how many surveys there are each year that warn of days lost due to hangovers, or long lunches, or duvet days? When it snowed in February all we heard was how much it was costing the economy because people couldn't get in to work. I've seen surveys of how much nicking post-it notes and paper clips costs the economy, how much using personal e-mail or twittering or booking your holiday at work costs the economy. And every few weeks there's a new calculation of how much drinking alcohol costs the economy.

You know the calculation I've never seen? Anywhere? How much profit the economy makes from people having a sandwich at their desk instead of taking a lunch hour. How much profit we make from people with Blackberries and mobile phones taking work calls and answering work emails 24/7. How much Britain PLC has profited this year from people working unpaid overtime because they fear for their job security.

I once did a job where I had a contract that said my working hours were 9am to 5pm. Most people rolled in about 9.30 but worked till 7. I got in at 8 and left at 6, so I was working longer hours than most people, who were in turn working longer than the stated hours on the contract. But most people weren't there to see the work I did in the morning. I was called in for a chat in which I was told if I continued to leave a mere one hour later than my stated working hours, I'd be given more work to do. Clearly, I was expected to do this extra work for free.

I think it's fascinating that when an industrial dispute escalates, one of the measures unions sometimes take is 'work to rule' - that is, workers stop doing all the work they do for free, make sure they take all their benefits, coffee breaks, full lunch breaks and so on, and follow health and safety rules to the letter. Employers consider this - only doing the work you are paid to do - as being almost as bad as a strike.

So what is our generosity towards Britain PLC worth then, eh? Come on, let's have a figure for that.

I'm no economist, but I imagine it more than pays for the time we take off when we're hungover or when we twitter from work.

Monday, December 14, 2009

This atheist's guide to Christmas - abridged


For people who just want to read some blogs - here's the short version of my very long essay below.

Just got home with a six-foot Christmas tree carried across my broad, manly shoulders. I feel like Man the Hunter, returning from the cold fog with vital supplies, and it gives The Beer Widow a bit of a thrill.

I walked past a man in the street who stared, and shook his head at me sadly as if to say, "A Christmas tree. God, how pathetic." And it reminded me how fashionable it is these days to be miserable about Christmas, to go all Grumpy Old Men but to actually mean it. Or to dismiss it with "It's just for the kids really". Or alternatively, to be Christian and moan about how we've lost the true meaning of Christmas. Or to be the Daily Mail and make up some bullshit about Luton town council banning Christmas as part of political correctness having gone mad.

The Beer Widow and I do not have kids. We are both devout atheists. We are - most of the time - what the Mail would refer to as 'politically correct'. But we bloody love Christmas, love it in a way that starts today and continues till the first Monday of the New Year (which is best when it falls around the 4th or 5th of Jan). It's the one time of year when we all feel we can put aside the stress and cynicism of modern life and simply be sentimental and happy. If you watched the same telly, listened to the same music and said the same things you watch, listen to and say at Christmas, people would think you were gauche and simple. But we get away with it because whatever our beliefs, Christmas is the one time of year when we understand that everyone is feeling and behaving the same way. And it feels good. If we allow cynicism and fundamentalism to shatter this consensus, we won't feel safe celebrating any more, and Christmas as we know it could disappear, as it has done in history before. That would be a terrible tragedy for humanity.

Wherever we are in the world, and whatever religion we follow, midwinter has always been celebrated, and these celebrations hold many things remarkably in common: the giving of gifts, festive lights in the dark, rebirth and renewal, a celebration of love. When fundamentalist Christians tell us we are forgetting the true meaning of Christmas, they're showing remarkable nerve, given that most parts of it bar the nativity were lifted from previous celebrations in order to help Christianity become the dominant religion.

Personally, I simply don't believe that Christ was the son of God. In fact, I don’t believe that there is a god of any description. But to me Christmas is still a magical time of year.

Christmas is a pluralist festival, a festival of consensus and tolerance, a time to come together and celebrate peace and goodwill to all men.

Crass commercialism is not the only alternative to a Christian celebration. My main beef with many Christians has always been that many seem to think they have a monopoly on human virtues such as compassion and generosity of spirit. You don't have to be Christian to think that these qualities are important, or that they should be celebrated ritualistically - as humans we have a need for ritual whatever our spiritual beliefs.

And what better time to celebrate the best in our character than the middle of winter? The beauty of Christmas is that, once you set aside religion, it is devastatingly simple. It’s dark and cold outside. The trees are bare. Everything looks dead. Many other mammals hibernate, getting their heads down in the hopes of surviving the worst. And what do we do? We stick two fingers up to winter, yell “FUCK YOU!” to it at the tops of our voices. We eat and drink more heartily than at any other time of the year. We go to endless parties.We throw open our doors to friends and family, and send greetings to people, some of whom we haven’t seen for years. We find any tree or plant that is still green, still alive, and drag it into our homes, which we make as gaudy and colourful and full of light as we can, creating beacons against the dark that are laughably over-specced for the purpose they ostensibly serve. We party, and that’s what we have always done. Christmas is a celebration of everything that is best about humanity, a celebration of our extraordinary spirit in the face of adversity. And that is why I get emotional and sentimental about it.

What I could do is forget Christmas. Instead, I could join the New Jersey humanists who celebrate HumanLight, the humanist winter solstice festival created in 2001. It’s celebrated on 23rd December, so it doesn’t interfere or conflict with anyone else’s ritual, and celebrates “humanity, reason and hope”. But there’s something about this that makes even the most timid person want to find the organisers, steal their dinner money, throw their school bag into a hedge and flush their heads down the toilet. My point is that Christmas has always been a broad collection of meanings. I don’t want to have to call it something else, to say “Happy Holidays” in order to mark out a secular celebration distinct from Christmas.

Christmas is the name we hold in common for our multilayered festival; the Christians nicked an awful lot of it from the Pagans. Surely they can share the name with us in return.

Friday, December 11, 2009

This atheist's guide to Christmas

Being miserable about Christmas? Humbug!

Just got home with a six-foot Christmas tree carried across my broad, manly shoulders. I feel like Man the Hunter, returning from the cold fog with vital supplies, and it gives The Beer Widow a bit of a thrill.

I walked past a man in the street who looked at me and shook his head at me sadly as if to say, "A Christmas tree. God, how pathetic." And it reminded me how fashionable it is these days to be miserable about Christmas, to go all Grumpy Old Men but to actually mean it. Or to dismiss it with "It's just for the kids really". Or alternatively, to be Christian and moan about how we've lost the true meaning of Christmas. Or to be the Daily Mail and make up some bullshit about Luton town council banning Christmas.

The Beer Widow and I do not have kids. We are both devout atheists. We are - most of the time - what the Mail would refer to as 'politically correct'. But we bloody love Christmas, love it in a way that start today and continues till the first Monday of the New Year (which is best when it falls around the 4th or 5th of Jan).

A few years ago I pitched a book idea on 'the true meaning of Christmas' but agent and publisher agreed that there was an insufficient market for it. So I thought I'd pick the bones out of my proposal for that book and offer them here.

It’s awfully long – far too long for a blog post really – so if you’re pushed for time but want the gist of it, skip to subhead 8 below. But if you want some Christmas trivia, read on…

1: T’was the night before Christmas…

John-Boy Walton, resplendent in garish, Mom-knitted festive jumper, has managed to crash his aeroplane near the North Pole, but it’s OK because Santa and his elves have rescued him. Santa, Mrs Claus and their English (natch) butler are trying to persuade John-Boy to join the staff, but he’s having a bit of trouble believing that this really is Santa. Who else he believes might be living at the North Pole with a bunch of elves is unclear.

Wandering around the huge house-cum-toy workshop (I mean, come on John-Boy. Have they built all this just to play an elaborate joke on you?[1] At the North Pole?) he discovers a room stacked with a bank of high-tech computer screens, from which Santa (if it is him) obviously watches the children of the world to check if they’re being naughty or nice. On one screen there’s his daughter, handling the disappearance of her father with the quiet dignity that five-year-olds seem able to manage in Hollywood. She’s being asked by a department store Santa what she would like for Christmas. She wants her Daddy back. Anything else? Any toys or dolls? No, just her Daddy. Mrs John-Boy is fighting back tears, and even Department Store Santa seems a little choked. He looks at the little girl for a while, then says gently, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Back at the North Pole, the real Santa walks in on a guilty-looking John-Boy. Look, he says, your daughter believes in Santa. Is it really so hard for you to believe too?

Now, I like to think of myself as the kind of person who, after watching five seconds of this kind of thing, would immediately realise that they were five seconds I will later remember on my death bed as time wasted, time that could have been spent doing something more worthwhile, such as picking lint out of my navel. But that’s not what’s happening here. I’m rooted to the spot in the middle of the living room, the remote, which was until recently zapping through a channel a second, now hangs limply from my fingers. I have a marble in my throat. My bottom lip is vibrating.

I’m quite a cynical person, most of the time. And I’m a real man. I don’t cry. I just get something in my eye every mid-December when we ritualistically watch It’s a Wonderful Life. The reason I’m turning my face away from my wife is that I need to check to see if those strangled mewling noises that seem to be coming from me are in fact coming from a kitten trapped under the cushion.

And any version of A Christmas Carol – be it low budget or epic; badly acted or the one with the sublime Alistair Sim; live action, Muppetized or even poorly animated – strips me utterly and reduces me to a childlike state of delight. It’s the bit where Scrooge wakes up… and it’s not too late… and he… he throws open the window and he tells the boy to go and… the intelligent boy, the remarkable fellow… to go and find the big… the big prize turkey in the Poulterers[2] …and… and… sorry. Just give me a minute. I’ve got something in my eye again.

I believe that Christmas is a time when normal rules should be suspended. Across the board. I want Christmas to be sentimental and cheesy. I want it gaudy. I want excess. I want my pubs densely clad in shiny metallic foil and flashing lights. I want my tree big and flashing. I want my music fizzing with sleigh bells. I want people smiling at each other in the street, blowing their credit limits, and snogging each other after too much cheap wine at office parties. The truth is that every year, I’m choking back sobs from the first prayer to help George Bailey in his hour of need to the last chorus of Auld Lang Syne. So what?

So I’m finding it disturbing that, with every year that passes, Christmas seems to be turning into a negatively exposed image of itself. The season of goodwill is mutating into the season of stress and boredom, even the season of anger and recrimination.

2: The argument in a (chest)nut (roasting on an open fire) shell

Christmas is the greatest festival in the world, because it really does bring people together and provides a necessary break at the end of a hard year. But Christmas is not guaranteed: over time, its fortunes have risen and fallen, and we’re in danger of losing its magic again.

Why?

Because to work, Christmas needs a base level of universal consensus – we can only get away with being dippy and dewy-eyed because we know that everyone else is doing and feeling similar things at the same time. That’s what makes it so special. Whether we are religious or not, we put aside cynicism and celebrate the most noble human virtues: generosity, friendship, laughter, togetherness, and a lusty appetite for life.

But that comfortable consensus is now under attack on several fronts. And if we let the consensus evaporate, we’ll lose the social ‘permission’ we need to celebrate.

3: “It’s all gone too commercial”

This is probably the most predictable statement that anyone can make about Christmas, and yet we say it every year. But Christmas has always been a highlight of the commercial year – the newly developing capitalist class were already urging us to buy brightly coloured toys back in the ‘golden age’ of Victorian Christmases. And in her book The First Christmas in New England – published in 1850 – Harriet Beecher Stowe has a character complaining that the true meaning of Christmas was being lost in a shopping spree.

The average child now receives £250 worth of presents at Christmas from their parents. That figure is no lower for single parents on benefits than it is for anyone else.

Some argue that Christmas is really just for the children, but even the kids see Christmas as a source of anxiety: a 2006 poll for BBC’s Newsround showed that one in six children felt sad, nervous or left out during the festive season.

Clearly then, Christmas anxiety is not just about spending money…

Every year, The Beer Widow and I have a bet: which weekly phone call to my Mum will elicit the inevitable, “I don’t know where t’time’s going Pete, I mean it’s only n weeks till Christmas.”

The record so far was early August a couple of years ago, when n was equal to twenty weeks. It’s never been less than twelve.

n signifies the time when my Mum needs to start thinking about getting her nets down to wash, clean the oven, put a lick of paint on the walls, defrost the freezer, put the dog on a diet and generally get her house up to match fitness ready for the festive season.

My Mum is of course far from unique. We start worrying earlier every year because this year, Christmas simply must be perfect. The earlier episodes of Delia Smith’s Christmas programme are filmed when the trees are still in bloom in her garden. And we’ve all heard the old joke that, when n equals eight, anyone over fifty knows that it’s time to put the sprouts on to cook. Delia leads by example, personally spending every waking moment of the last ten weeks of every single year preparing Christmas dinner, cakes, hams, pies, and edible tree decorations. And cooking is just the start of it. Delia, Martha Stewart and women’s magazine features editors have convinced us that now, we have to make our own table decorations, have the best costume for the kid’s nativity play, the right little black dress for the Christmas party, the right diet so we can fit into the little black dress, the right invites to the right parties to make the dress and the diet worth all the effort.

You don’t need to have children to feel the weight of expectation building throughout the Autumn until it hits breaking point on Christmas Eve, when you come home and burst into tears recounting to your spouse the fight you had with a stupid woman over the last packet of Marks and Spencer’s not-just-cheesy-breadsticks after a final, forlorn search for a Cabbage Patch Doll.[3] And when Christmas gets this stressful, you can understand why many of us might fall out of love with it, why the festive season does not automatically create that frisson of joy come mid-October when you finally allow yourself to catch up with my Mum’s keen sense of anticipation.

But that’s only the start of the problem.

4: The PC Phoney War and the Rise of Religious Fundamentalism

Stories about how the politically correct brigade are banning Christmas began appearing in certain types of newspapers about ten years ago, and have multiplied every year since. The usual story is that councils are banning reference to Christmas, or banning Christmas decorations, with the excuse that they could be offensive to people of other religions. Increasingly, prominent Muslims and Jews are then wheeled out by the newspapers to say that they are not offended by Christmas, that most of them enjoy it, and that they can’t see what all the fuss is about.

This apparent good nature and sensible behaviour can however be interpreted as having an ulterior agenda: arguably, we are seeing religious groups agreeing to set aside their differences and take the fight to a common enemy: the secular society.

There’s just one small flaw in their logic: the PC war against Christmas isn’t really happening.

Last December, one article buried deep on the Guardian website challenged the prevailing story. Oliver Burkeman phoned up the guilty councils and asked for their version of events. Where he differed from other journalists is that he reported their responses fully and accurately. He started with Birmingham Council, accused by the Daily Mail of rebranding Christmas as ‘Winterval’. It turns out that Winterval was a promotional campaign to help rejuvenate the city centre, lasting from November to January. During the period where Christmas would normally have been celebrated, the “Happy Winterval” banners were joined by Christmas trees, Christmas lights – on the front of the council offices – carol services and Christmas cards from the mayor. Winterval ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since (let’s be honest: the name may be as clever as it thinks it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s likeable). Nevertheless, BIRMINGHAM BANS CHRISTMAS is taken down from the tabloid loft along with the baubles every December.

It’s not just Birmingham: last Christmas, spurred on not just by the tabloids but also by former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, leaders of three religious faiths in Luton warned the council of the "anger within religious communities" that might erupt if the council went ahead with its determination to rename “the Christmas festival using another (non-religious) name". Trouble is, Luton has never attempted to do anything of the sort. Five years ago the town held a festival called Luminos on one weekend in late November. The event did not replace the council’s own Christmas celebrations, nor did it forbid anyone else from doing anything.

A close reading of a typical story about the government or a council banning Christmas cards reveals that on the majority of occasions, what has actually happened is that someone has sent out a card reading “Season’s Greetings,” rather than “Merry Christmas”. They haven’t banned anyone else from sending out cards reading “Merry Christmas”. “Season’s Greetings” cards are nothing new. In any mixed pack of cards, they’ve always been there. What is new is the accusation that these cards – complete with mail coaches in the snow or Victorian children dancing around a Christmas tree – are somehow un-Christian, even anti-Christmas, a deliberate ply to secularise the festival.

Ironically, the only man who has ever really wanted to ban Christmas was deeply religious, and wanted rid of it on religious grounds. Oliver Cromwell managed to convince himself that the birth of the Saviour of Mankind was not something that should be celebrated. In 1644 he forced through an Act of Parliament instructing people to think about Jesus instead of eating and drinking too much, enforcing it by sending soldiers through the streets looking for sprigs of holly and sniffing to detect roasting goose. More than 350 years later, it’s no coincidence that the phoney war over Christmas is happening at the same time as educational establishments are being pressured to teach creationism alongside the theory of evolution in schools – in science lessons rather than religious studies. Just like Cromwell, the people who really want us to change how we mark Christmas are those who want less distraction from the serious business of praising God.[4]

The truth about Christmas is that it has never, in its entire history, been solely about celebrating the birth of Christ. Even in the Victorian heyday to which many fundamentalists seek a return, pagan and humanist elements were just as prevalent as they are today, if not moreso. In the Middle Ages, when church attendance was a hundred per cent, Christmas was overseen by a Lord of Misrule, a peasant appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, which often included drunkenness and wild partying, in the pre-Christian tradition of Saturnalia.

“Ah!” cry the fundamentalists. “But!” they add. “You are obviously wrong. It’s very simple: Christmas is one hundred per cent about the Christian nativity, and nothing else. And anyway, you can tell because it’s called CHRIST-mas.”

This is an interesting line of argument and one I’m grateful to the Daily Mail-reading Christian for sending my way. Because using that same logic, I can go to their house, steal their dog, rename it “Pete’s Dog” and say, “See? It must by my dog because it’s called Pete’s Dog!”

Christmas was similarly appropriated from previous owners and rebranded. To steal your biggest festival from someone else is one thing. To then insist that your version of the festival is the only allowable interpretation of it is, to put it mildly, a bit of a cheek. Anyway, to a real Christian, Easter has always been a much more important celebration.[5]

5: The Loss of Consensus

If Christmas becomes a choice between maxing out your credit cards and being stressed for two months, or devoting yourself, Puritan-like, to a superstition celebrating an admittedly inspiring bloke from ancient Judea, it’s hardly surprising that the fashionable response to the whole festival is, increasingly, a cool “Oh must we? I really can’t be bothered”.

“It’s just for the children, isn’t it, really.”

“We’re just having a quiet one on our own.”

“I’d like to just go on holiday somewhere warm and forget all about it.”

We can see this attitude growing wherever we look. When they’re not raising the bar and drilling us on how to have the perfect Christmas, magazines and newspapers are running features on “how to survive Christmas”. Survive it? The Christmas episode of Grumpy Old Men, where we get to see Will Self destroying any vestige of goodwill towards men, is on heavier rotation in the second half of December than adverts for crap leather sofas fronted by former New Romantics with fear in their eyes. And Will’s counterparts on Grumpy Old Women had so much to get off their chests this year, they had to devote not just one programme, but an entire series to telling us just how grim Christmas can be for the blameless D-list lady celebrity.

This is why I’m worried.

There’s a loathsome phrase in advertising about brand’s “giving permission” to people to do something. Cool ads for Magners “give people permission” to drink cider again and still be cool. It’s a phrase I would grudgingly concede is appropriate for Christmas. “Giving permission” is not really about the advertiser or another authority telling you that you can do something. It’s saying that, because this message has been distributed through mass media to millions of people, everyone else who’s a bit like you has also seen it. So that means that you have social permission to buy that brand, or say that thing, or wear that colour. In this sense, Christmas gives us permission to drop our guard. Everyone knows that people get a bit dippy at this time of year. It feels nice, and you can do and feel things that, any other time of year, people would think were just a bit crap. At Christmas, I have social permission to be sentimental, to smile at people, to cry at soppy films, because the rest of society, if they’re not joining in, at least expect it and accept it as the norm for this period.

If the battle for Christmas does fully shatter our consensus of what the festival is all about, then we would no longer have social permission to celebrate it like we do. Christmas as we know it could actually disappear within as little as a generation.

6: The Origins and Evolution of Christmas

You can tell that the Nativity is a magical story. It is the absolute embodiment of the rule that makes any story great: it entrances generation after generation, and we never get tired of hearing it just one more time. It’s not just that it’s the birth of Christ: there’s something more to it that makes it work so well.

The nativity supplanted (but never eradicated) the earlier celebrations at that time of year. We all vaguely know that Jesus wasn’t really born on 25th December. We’re sort of aware that there was a Pagan festival in the middle of winter long before Christ was born.

The Roman Empire celebrated Saturnalia, a time when they ate and drank heavily and gave each other presents. It was a festival celebrating the winter solstice, for about a week up to 23rd December. The there was the celebration of Sol Invictus, “the birthday of the unconquered sun”, on 25th December. Christians appropriated these festivals as a way of converting pagans to their religion, and by the fourth century Christmas was celebrated on 25th December.

Separate from the Romans, Yule was a winter solstice festival celebrated across northern Europe long before Christianity, and featured burning logs, Christmas trees, holly, ivy and the eating of ham.

Diwali comes a little earlier in the year, in October or November, but it is a “festival of light”, the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil, and is regarded by Hindus and Sikhs alike as a celebration of life and an opportunity to strengthen family and social relationships.

Hannukkah is another “festival of lights” that just happens to fall in midwinter. While it is bound by strict religious observances, it too is full of candlelight, songs, games and the giving of gifts.

The Iroquois Indians celebrate the midwinter solstice as a time of renewal and thanksgiving. Dongzhi is a festival celebrating the winter solstice across East Asia. It’s called Daygan in Persia, and Goru among the Dogon tribe of Mali. It was Inti Raymi to the Inca Empire, Lenaea in Ancient Greece, and the Festival of Osiris in Ancient Egypt. Themes of reflection and rebirth are universal. Themes of celebration, eating and drinking to excess are not, but are still widespread. Celebrate the birth of Christ if you want. But there are no grounds whatsoever for arguing that this is the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas.

Christmas itself has enjoyed several “golden ages”. In the Middle Ages anticipation was built up with the Forty Days of St Martin beforehand, and the festival itself lasted for the full twelve days. The celebrations featuring the Lord of Misrule, the inversion of traditional authority and the mocking of important figures survive today in pantomime.

When Cromwell came to loggerheads with the Catholic Church, Christmas fell into decline. It wasn’t actually banned in Britain for that long, but with protestants dubbing Christmas “the trappings of popery” and even “the rags of the Beast,” and Catholics responding by urging ever stricter observance of highly ritualised religious worship, people lost their enthusiasm for the festival. This is why I’m not exaggerating the threat that exists now.

By the 1820s sectarian division had largely disappeared, and we started to get things like The Night before Christmas and the appearance of St. Nick on the scene. And then Dickens invented the modern Christmas, and the imagery and sentiment to which we still hark back. Of course, Dickens has been attacked by our churchgoing friends, some of whom see the attempt to create a festival based on the family, and on the spirit of kindness and generosity, as a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the pulpit, and therefore a wholly bad thing.

From our modern standpoint, the last golden age of Christmas seems to be the mid-twentieth century American Christmas – Bing Crosby with his cosy jumper and pipe, Rudolph making his first appearance in a department store ad, Miracle on 34th Street, the emergence of mass, advertising funded consumer capitalism, and of course, well whaddya know, George Bailey’s crazy old buildings and loan.

A couple of things from this period fascinate me. Firstly, we all know that it used to snow at Christmas when our parents were young, but it doesn’t any more. What’s the first line Bing sings, back in 1954? “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas – just like the ones we used to know.” Have we ever really had a white Christmas, or do we just think we have?

Secondly, looking at It’s a Wonderful Life: the bit where George runs up the street, gripped by madness, reeling in horror from the neon signs advertising drink and dancing girls, the world as it would have been had he not been born… well, It’s a Wonderful Life is a work of fiction. In reality, George Bailey never was born. Does that mean his dystopian version/vision of his hometown is in reality a window from the fictional world of Bedford Falls into our own? Is the film’s enduring appeal the fact that it portrays a world that could exist if we behaved a bit more like we do at Christmas all the year round?

7: The layering on of tradition

On the first weekend of December last year, I went with a large group of friends to the ice rink at Somerset House. As I was waiting my turn, a family came out of the changing room after handing in their skates, and headed off for some hot chocolate. “This should be a tradition for our family from now on,” said the ten year old girl trailing delightedly after her mother. Immediately I felt a familiar tightness in my throat, but I wasn’t surprised: this is the third year we’ve been to Somerset House on the first Sunday in December. It’s organised by my friend Debs, who then invites the whole gang back to her flat for mulled wine and canap├ęs. “This is when Christmas starts for me now,” she beams, rosy cheeked from the ice (or maybe the wine), “this is our tradition”.

On the last day my mate Chris, my wife Liz and I are in London before we retreat for Christmas proper, we meet up and go for a Japanese meal in Soho, and then on to a pub where we exchange presents. The first year we did it, it just happened. The second year, we’d enjoyed Japanese the previous year so we saw no reason not to do it again. By the third year, it was a tradition.

And what’s the first line of the first review of It’s a Wonderful Life on Internet Movie Database? “This film has become a Christmas tradition in my family. We watch it every year and never tire of it.”

Christmas is a folk festival, a humanist festival, a template upon which generation after generation lay down their own traditions. We don’t just follow what Delia or Nigella do, or the neighbours or the toy manufacturers. We take what we like, and we revive old traditions, and create brand new ones.

We use Christmas as a link to the past, a source of continuity and reassurance. We need ritual, no matter what our spiritual beliefs, and Christmas is when it all comes out: everything becomes part of tradition. Whether it’s kissing under the mistletoe in remembrance of Frigga, the Pagan Goddess of fertility (yes, really), or stirring the Christmas pudding mix clockwise (i.e. east to west) in honour of the journey of the Magi, there’s not a single aspect of Christmas that does not come overloaded with meaning, and still we create new layers.

The layering of tradition and ritual does of course create new headaches for the modern family. It can make for an uncomfortable morning the first Christmas two parents remarry, and two previously harmonious families celebrate together for the first time: what do you mean you open one present just after midnight and then the rest as soon as you get up on Christmas morning? Are you mad? Are you animals? Everybody knows that on Christmas morning you get dressed first and have smoked salmon and Bucks Fizz for breakfast and sing a carol holding hands around the trussed-up turkey before you open presents. You have a prawn cocktail starter with Christmas lunch? Not Yorkshire pudding? That’s worse than those freaks and perverts who don’t have a starter at all!

This has been happening for the entire history of midwinter festivals. We can criticise the first Roman Christians for stealing someone else’s festival if we like, but if we’re feeling charitable, we could argue that they were only doing what me, Chris, Debs, Liz and all the rest of us do, taking the template and customising it to their own ends. There’s only a problem when you start claiming that your customised version is the only correct one. As the new family above demonstrates, that’s just bad manners. Hardly very Christmassy.

That’s the power of Christmas. It takes on characteristics down the centuries, from every society that celebrates it. This is where the real magic comes from.

8: The True Meaning of Christmas

Personally, I simply don't believe that Christ was the son of God. In fact, I don’t believe that there is a god of any description. But to me Christmas is still a magical time of year.

Christmas is a pluralist festival, a festival of consensus and tolerance, which ties in very nicely with the imperative to come together and celebrate peace and goodwill to all men.

Crass commercialism is not the only alternative to a Christian celebration. My main beef with many Christians has always been that they seem to think they have a monopoly on human virtues such as compassion and generosity of spirit. You don't have to be Christian to think that these qualities are important, or that they should be celebrated ritualistically. As humans we have a need for ritual whatever our spiritual beliefs.

And what better time to celebrate the best in our character than the middle of winter? The beauty of Christmas is that, once you set aside religion, it is devastatingly simple. It’s dark and cold outside. The trees are bare. Everything looks dead. Many other mammals hibernate, getting their heads down in the hopes of surviving the worst. And what do we do? We stick two fingers up to winter, yell “FUCK YOU!” to it at the tops of our voices. We eat and drink more heartily than at any other time of the year. We go to endless parties. We throw open our doors to friends and family, and send greetings to people, some of whom we haven’t seen for years. We find any tree or plant that is still green, still alive, and drag it into our homes, which we make as gaudy and colourful and full of light as we can, creating beacons against the dark that are laughably over-specced for the purpose they ostensibly serve. We party, and that’s what we have always done. Christmas is a celebration of everything that is best about humanity, a celebration of our extraordinary spirit in the face of adversity. And that is why I get emotional and sentimental about it.

What I could do is forget Christmas. Instead, I could join the New Jersey humanists and celebrate HumanLight, the humanist winter solstice festival created in 2001. It’s celebrated on 23rd December, so it doesn’t interfere or conflict with anyone else’s ritual, and celebrates “humanity, reason and hope”. But there’s something about this that makes even the most timid person want to find the organisers, steal their dinner money, throw their school bag into a hedge and flush their heads down the toilet. My point is that Christmas has always been a broad collection of meanings. I don’t want to have to call it something else, to say “Happy Holidays” in order to mark out a secular celebration distinct from Christmas.

Christmas is the name we hold in common for our multilayered festival; the Christians nicked an awful lot of it from the Pagans. Surely they can share the name with us in return.


[1] It’s possible that, in this made-for-TV movie, the character may not actually be called John-Boy. But to everyone he meets, to everyone who ever sees him in anything from the 1970s until the day he dies, this actor (I forget his real name, if he indeed has one) will always be John-Boy. If he went on a UN mission to Somalia, as actors increasingly do, people who have only ever watched the African Nation’s Cup Final on the one TV in the village bar will somehow know to call him John-Boy.

[2] We usually assume that goose was the more common bird in the Victorian Christmas. But turkey was more expensive than goose, and therefore more popular among the rich, while goose was the standard for those less well off. It just goes to show you that Scrooge really wasn’t messing about.

[3] You may think this comment shows a willing admission of being hopelessly out of touch with trends in children’s toys, written as it is in the X-Box age. Far from it. At the recent London Toy Fair, the big hits were revivals of eighties staple such as Rubik’s Cube and Monopoly. I’m writing this on the day that the BMX bike was names the best toy of all time. Cabbage Patch Dolls for Christmas 10. Mark my words.

[4] You may worry that I’m throwing around terms like “religious fundamentalist” and “religious right” a little too easily. So just for the record: the first recorded use of the term “War against Christmas” was in 1999, by Peter Brimelow, a British-American “paleoconservative” (they came up with that term themselves – obviously unaware or unconcerned that it immediately suggests ‘dinosaur’ to the rest of us). The same year, English publications like the Mail began pestering our councils. Brimelow refers to an area called “the Anglosphere”, and feels it is important to stress how the English-speaking world will run the planet in the 21st century. With my non-Christmassy cynical head on, when I see “English speaking” in this context I’m also assuming white, straight, male and religious, but I may be mistaken. Brimelow’s books include: Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, The Wall Street Gurus: How You Can Profit from Investment Newsletters, and The Worm In The Apple: How The Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education. One of the first people to take up his cause was Fox’s talk radio host Sean Hannity, whose last book is called Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism. (My guess is Sean doesn’t see an odd-one-out in that short list of –isms.)

[5] “Last Trumpet Ministries International” in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin USA, freely admits that most of the tradition and ritual surrounding Christmas pre-dates the birth of Christ. It also helpfully points out that, according to the best guess we can take from the Gospels, Christ wasn’t born any time near Christmas. This is the kind of modern, forward-thinking open-mindedness that would be so refreshing to hear a little closer to home. Or rather… you think it is, until you get to the concluding section of their analysis and the lid comes off: “We are now seeing ever-increasing celebrating of Christmas or Yule, its true name, as we draw closer to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ! In both witchcraft circles and contemporary Christian churches, the same things are going on… So, what is wrong with Christmas? 1. To say that Jesus was born on December 25th is a lie! The true date is sometime in September according to the Scriptures. 2. Trees, wreaths, holly, mistletoe and the like are strictly forbidden as pagan and heathen! To say that these are Christian or that they can be made Christian is a lie! 3. The Lord never spoke of commemorating his birth but rather commanded us to remember the sacrifice of His suffering and death, which purchased our salvation. Think about it! Can we worship and honor God by involving ourselves with customs and traditions, which God Himself forbade as idolatry? Can we convince God to somehow "Christianize" these customs and the whole pretence and lie of Christmas, so we can enjoy ourselves? Can we obey through disobedience? So what is right about Christmas? 1. Nothing!” Come Judgement Day, I think you’ll find Cromwell just over there, mate.