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Coming to terms with Christmas

  • 21 December 2012

My 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,