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Coming to terms with Christmas


Christmas Tree ContemplationMy most vivid childhood memories of Christmas don't have all that much to do with Christmas.

In one, I am rifling through the antique wooden owl beside my grandmother's fireplace, finding hundreds of ancient marbles of all colours and sizes. They glow in the amber light that spills through the lead-glass lights my grandmother has crafted herself. I don't even remember the presents I got that year.

In another, my brothers and I get up at 1.30am on Christmas 'morning' and sneak into the living room to open our presents because technically, it is Christmas Day. It is a deftly executed mission, but we are sent back to bed by growling parents, knowing that we all got Super-Soakers.

In yet another, I am an angel in the school nativity, festively singing the carols when a mammoth moth lands on my white blouse and refuses to leave, sending me and my two best friends, also angels, into hysterical laughter. At the time it was the funniest incident that had ever transpired in my short life.

So: I find pleasure in ancient marbles; I am thrilled to be awake past midnight; a giant moth launches a benign attack. Innocent memories of someone who has always enjoyed family and friends and gifts at Christmas.

And yet I still find Christmas an alien time. Finding perfect gifts for everyone is stressful, and I always feel guilty receiving them. Am I allowed to re-gift the panettone? And then the expectation placed on everyone to just have a bloody good time ensures at least one full-scale burnout in the family. Christmas doesn't represent an important part of a religious calendar for me, and I find the reckless consumerism hard to handle.

Lots of people find Christmas exhausting, and it hasn't always been celebrated in the way that it is today. So why does Christmas persist as it is? Is it merely the commerce machine that pushes it? If so, is it worth it?

Pagans celebrated the winter solstice around this time of the solar calendar. This influenced the timing of the annual Christian celebration of Christmas when Christianity began to spread more widely in the 400s.

In the middle ages in Christian Europe, Christmas celebrations took on a festival atmosphere, where entire cities boozed and partied.

In 1647 in England, anti-Catholic pressures in the government outlawed Christmas for about 30 years. Following this ban by the fun police, civil insurrection ensued, and Canterbury cathedral was seized by rioters for weeks. They literally decked the halls with holly.

The 'Christmas spirit' as we know it — families sitting around with sherry giving gifts by a tree — was more or less a Dickensian contribution. A Christmas Carol actually redefined a lot of Christmas rituals, like the ideas of charity and family being central to the holiday.

You can see that the move away from communal celebrations to more atomised family units parallels the emergence of capitalism, the time of the machine.

The changing rituals of Christmas are grounded in paganism, Christianity, and in capitalism. What link is there between them, other than the need for societies to have some celebration to look forward to, some kind of reprieve from their year-long labour? Is there anything at all that links the spiritual with the material traditions?

My point is that the most forgettable parts of Christmas are those which are prescribed by the consumer culture. That's no new sentiment, and has been documented in pretty much every Christmas film ever, from Christmas Vacation to Love Actually. Ironically, most of the films that make this criticism also monetise Christmas.

It is generally true though that Christmas is about people getting to spend time with those who give them an identity in some way. Jews in New York go and eat at Chinese restaurants, Catholics do the church thing, the orphans unite, and everyone else hopefully gets a day off work to spend it with whoever they wish .

G.K. Chesterton, a Christmas devotee, wrote passionately on the topic. 'Christmas is a survival of the past.' And it is. He also wrote the story of Christmas is that 'the absolute once ruled the universe from a cattle stall'.

Whether you subscribe to a Christian faith or not, the humble nativity story should be inspiration enough to steer clear of the prawn-cocktailed, child-sized-iPhoned, credit-card-comedowned version of Christmas that is being sold to us all, at our own expense. 

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Christmas



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Existing comments

Ellena you are a gem Love your piece and its historical perspective Another day made by Eureka Street and its journalists Happy christmas all

GAJ | 21 December 2012  

An excellent article, Ellena. The traditional Christmas story, I suspect, reaches many people at a level much deeper than the conscious one and therefore, whether they are formally "religious" or not, has the possibility to transform. Although Dickens never formally mentioned this story in "A Christmas Carol" its spirit did permeate the novel. It's all very paradoxical: some people who think they "have" Christmas in reality have nothing whereas others who appear to have "nothing" to us have it all.

Edward F | 24 December 2012  

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