Christmas is rife with paradox. It is a festival in which we all participate, breaking up our regular schedules and commitments – we don’t normally go to work and it is a taboo even to check our work emails on December 25 – yet there is much about the festival that is trivial and hardly worth the weight of academic scholarship. We watch Christmas movies that are lightweight and pay lip service to the miraculous and the world of the supernatural that, the rest of the year at any rate, we are not supposed to believe in anymore.
It is supposed to be a Christian celebration, but it is hard to construe the 2.4m people who attended a Christmas service in the Church of England in 2014 as representative of what Christmas “means” for most people.
Whatever one’s Christian allegiance or otherwise, Christmas is not something we choose to celebrate. My grandfather used to find the anticipation of Christmas so frustrating that he vowed he would just eat beans on toast for his Christmas lunch. But he never did – my parents would invariably end up buying and then cooking a small roast turkey for him which he could simply take out of the fridge at lunchtime on the day, add to the boiled potatoes and sprouts and indulge in the festive spirit yet again.
Like the fictional family in John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas, which was made into a film under the title Christmas with the Kranks in 2004, Christmas is not a festival that we can forego or escape, at least not without incurring some degree of social ostracism.
Skipping the Christmas office party, the children’s Nativity or carol concert, the pantomime – or the sounds of Slade and Wizzard that are piped through virtually every supermarket and radio station in lead-up – is literally only for the Scrooge among us. We prefer the face of the family gathered around the tree to the lone, antisocial, nonconformist figure that Dickens portrayed.
At the same time, we often associate Christmas with an excess of consumerism, and there is the irony that we need to pay a material price in order to achieve the non-material benefits that we seek. Indeed, a material gift, bought in a crowded store, is perhaps a peculiar way in which to best express love and affection for our family and friends.
But while consumption and capital abound, Christmas also encapsulates something that transcends any short-term, monetary needs and goals. For, do we not draw on the perfect, innocent, pre-lapsarian past in order to give us hope for the Christmas that is to come?
The power of nostalgia
Nostalgia is a staple of Christmas, as record requests to the late Ed “Stewpot” Stewart on Christmas Junior Choice on BBC Radio 2 have shown over recent years. Stewpot began his final programme in Christmas 2015 by asking his listeners: “Isn’t it great to hear the oldies, because this is what this programme is all about for the next hour and three quarters. There are so many records which we heard as children ourselves.”
In literature, too, we like it when Scrooge becomes a changed man at the end of A Christmas Carol, and, moreover, we are happy for the story to end there. His transformation becomes a model to aim at, even if in the “real” world it might be safer to posit that Scrooge would revert to type as a miserly, suspicious and parsimonious employer by the end of Boxing Day. Redemption is rarely a static process. It has to be constantly earned and relearned.
But at Christmas we want to suspend disbelief if only for a limited time. So, when Tim Allen is whisked off with his reindeer at the end of The Santa Clause (1994) as Father Christmas in order to deliver presents to all of the children of the world in one night, we really want him to succeed. Even that film’s most ardent rationalist, the psychologist played by Judge Reinhold, is transformed, analogously to Scrooge perhaps, from disbelieving sceptic to fervent believer in the power of magic, myth and faith. What is this if not a sacred moment – paradoxically, it is the secular as religious, and is no less efficacious for that.
Christmas is not just a sacred event in an otherwise profane calendar. It transcends the rest of the year and, for all its materialist and ersatz trappings, is a time when we want to cultivate good, wholesome, edifying characteristics and behaviours. Even if they quickly ebb away come January, when our resolutions for the New Year ahead are similarly pretty short-lived (if sincerely espoused), we never lose sight of them.
The perfect Christmas may be as far away in our past as it is ever credibly going to come about in our own lifetimes, but as with most eschatologies we never give up the hope.
So, yes, we may scoff at the stock conventions of Christmas – the elves, the reindeer, Lapland, Frosty the Snowman, Santa, and the fairy at the top of the tree, but they represent models of joy, peace, love and hope which (against our rational judgement) rub off on us. We want to give in to the Christmas spirit and, like Charlie in The Santa Clause, be taken on a magical ride. A religion of materialism it might well be, but Christmas is also an oasis of the transcendent and, perhaps, the only time in the year when the supernatural not only persists but is our best guide in how to become better, kinder, more compassionate, more giving and more authentic people.