Ask a primary school kid – what is Christmas? And they will most likely say, “the most magical thing” and then inform you all about the birth of baby Jesus and Father Christmas. Why the two don’t really connect is of no interest to them (really, some children believe Jesus Christ plays football for Chelsea). It’s gifts, and feasts, and transformation – houses that really twinkle and old people who smile with ever-ready fiver gifts. They put up going to Church (possibly the only time of the year) because the payback of seeing their parents go soppy over the home-made Nativity is that they turn into the most bounteous gift-givers on Christmas morning. It’s up their with Birthdays for giddy excitement and feeling totally spoilt.
Ask a bunch of adults what Christmas is and the responses are likely to be much more varied. Some will say talk of the celebration – of giving and sharing and merrymaking, others the spiritual – the religious story or the “Dickensian” with morals and meaning. For many more, it’s a holiday from work or study – a time for solitary self-indulgement and social over-indulgment. Then there are the sad or lonely or aged, who can’t see much reason at all. And perhaps because Christmas means such different things to us our misunderstandings (especially within the family) can magnify at this time of year.
Anyone over the age of 21 is, however, unlikely to say Christmas is all about the presents – although that’s the bit we likely sweat over (and spend) the most (here’s why we should ). Trying to rationalize the purchase of another glittery, glitzy decoration or pointless toy as stocking filler; sorting “the family” visiting arrangements (some of whom you may not have seen since last year), all the while dealing with the seemingly non-stop demands of the charitable with the what-the-hell-to-wear for the wacky-themed office party. For some Christmas really is a kind of hell – a season of forced jollity and charity; the spending, the entertaining and, most annoying of all, the pressure to reveal your very merry self. It’s not surprising then that we alternate from baffled, to bewildered, and even rejectionist, about Christmas. There is, perhaps, no other time of year where we starkly see the hype and hypocrisy of our modern world.
So then let’s consider our ancient cultural traditions, the dance between the physical and the spiritual that has been present in Europe for centuries. From the ancient Egyptians and Celts to the Hopi—midwinter was seen as celebrated as a time of ritual, reflection, and renewal – a time for feeding the spirit and nurturing the soul, without a whiff of modern-day prodigality or hostess-stress. Our pagan ancestors where much more embracing of nature’s contrasts – the spiritual and material, the light and dark, the loud and silent. So enjoy the razzle, gulp the sherry, sing the carols … but also take a moment for quiet and contemplation, to count your blessings. Lets resonate with the Norsemen of Northern Europe, who worshipped the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons (it was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come). These pagans burnt a huge log over the twelve darkest days to encourage the wheel to keep turning – and so bring on the lighter days. With kith and kin and neighbours, they would sit round the fire, tell stories and drink sweet ale. (Why not go to a winter ceremony)
Maybe then it’s time to make it all a bit simpler this Christmas; just gather in – yourself and your dearest – tell stories, exchange small (thoughtful) gifts, remember ol’ times and be very, very thankful. All washed down with a glass (or few) of sweet ale.
If you haven’t found your Christmas spirit yet give Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days: 12 stories and 12 feasts a try; an eclectic collection of short stories, recipes and memoir. Through all the heartache of her own troubled childhood and the tumult of adult life, she has maintained a love for the holiday. Remembering her often horrible mother (always given the title “Mrs.”), she hears Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” on the radio and remembers “how Mrs W had played that song on the piano. It was one of those moments we all know, of sadness and sweetness mixed together.” (www.jeanettewinterson.com)
You can also her talking about her (joyful) views on Christmas on BBC Woman’s Hour
It that’s not Yule enough for you, re-aquaint yourself with these classics;
Watch: Christmas was made for the cinema, nearly every year a new offering is added to it’s rich canon of Yule-time tales. From the schmaltzy to the enchanting there are films to delight all; from the young and the old to the believers and the non.
MyMerryChristmas.com – Website and podcasts dedicated to Christmas – history, culture, music, movies, scripture, and the controversies.
BBC School Radio: A Christmas Carol. Dicken’s classic retold in 15 minute chunks.
BBC R4 Open Book: Christmas writings. In this programme Mariella Frostrup and her guests John Mullan and Jessie Burton explore what it offers twentieth century novelists; from James Joyce via Patrick Hamilton to Bridget Jones.
BBC R4 Thinking Aloud – A series examining Christmas with Laurie Taylor
BBC R4 Open Country – The Northern Lights at Christmas
Featured image: YouTube