In the run up to Christmas most of us today are wondering what we are to find under the tree. Will it be a Brompton Folding Bike, Tom Tom Golfer, or iPad? we ask.
Some of us have childhood memories of receiving unwanted, or disappointing, gifts and then having to laboriously sit and write thank you letters to our relatives who had dutifully purchased and packaged them.
In my home town the Christmas service was one of the few occasions when the drafty and decaying church was full, and even though cold and uncomfortable there still seemed to be something warm and comforting about singing familiar carols in the company of other towns-folk.
We had fewer presents in those days and, looking back, their quality seems basic compared to those of today. Maybe it’s my fancy but our imaginations seemed better then, for it was us that imbued objects with life, rather than the designers who today animate them with computer chips and other technology.
Even so, with the exception of construction kits, most gifts left me cold, or confused.
Why had I been given a water rifle that killed nothing, whilst I lived in a society that proclaimed ‘Thou shalt not kill’, but expected me to point it everywhich way and shoot what ever I could?
Why was my mother so horrified when two neighbours dressed in their Sunday best appeared at the fence shouting: ‘Stephen, shoot us, shoot us’. The bolt action on that toy could send a painful water jet thrity feet and I complied to their request with alacraty.
“Mum, Mum”, I yelled excidedly running into the kitchen, “I’ve just shot two old ladies and a dog!”
When, like most small children, I once crushed a bug the act immediately filled me with revulsion and self-loathing. I no longer wanted to eat meat, but since Christmas was all about greasy geese, or turkeys crammed both ends with sausage meat and other stuffing that was an impossibility.
Many years later I met Adrian Slack, a true British eccentric, who at the age of five declared himself vegetarian because he couldn’t bear the burden of eating Br’er Rabbit and his friends. His father, a stern man if Slack’s account is true, demanded he change but Adrian stuck to his guns and never ate flesh again. Later he was to become Britain’s foremost expert on carnivorous plants.
In these dark days I take comfort in knowing there are such men as Adrian Slack, although sadly he is no longer with us. Satish Kumar, the ecologist and Editor of Resurgence also comes to mind. When a young man of twenty five he learned that Bertrand Russell was going to jail as a result of his demonstrating for peace. Russell was ninety at the time.
The young Kumar suddenly asked himself what he was doing idly drinking coffee in India when Bertrand Russell at his grand old age was prepared to be jailed because he saw the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a terrible thing. He and a friend set out from the grave of Mahatma Gandhi to walk to the four capitals of the countries with nuclear weapons. With no funds they managed in two years first to reach Moscow, then Paris where they went on to London and met Bertrand Russell.
He bought them first class tickets on the Queen Mary to New York and from there they walked to Washington D.C. The whole trip was made as a pilgrimage and without funds. People helped them at every step of their journey as the passed through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and on through the former Soviet Union to Moscow. The same occurred when they travelled west from Moscow visiting the Poland, Germany and onto Paris. The French helped them to reach England.
As a young man I knew nothing of this, and instead simply pursued my self-interest. I was rather like the character Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. When one day Bridget attempts to make intelligent conversation with him by casually asking: ‘What do you think of the situation in Chechnya?’ he retorts: ‘I don’t give a fuck, Jones’.
My life, as a human being, began when in my early forties the career that had nurtured me for the first half of my life dropped away together with wives and children and a little more money than I possessed. I was sad, and frustrated, of course but also with the losses came a liberation. I returned for a while to the town where I grew up as a child. My contemporaries had aged, where I by comparison had not. A few had died along the way victims of the dark side of counter-culture, but many were pleased to see me and more than a few helped me to find my feet.
It seemed right to celebrate Christmas then because the nativity is more than the simple tale of a baby born in humble circumstances, it’s also the story of wise men and simple working folk coming together to revere the birth of something pure. Indeed some claim the whole story is based on earlier myths that have their roots in astronomy where these tales denote the the vernal equinox moving out of one constellation and into the next. In the case of the nativity this represented the passage from Aries, (the Ram often appearing as a symbol in the Old Testament), into Pisces – the sign of the fish which early Christians used as a sign of their faith and which today still appears as bumper stickers, lapel badges and the like to serve the same purpose.
I loved the way that old town celebrated community, be it Christmas, Easter, or an autumn fair. In some senses the place feels as much my physical self as these fingers with which I now type.
The difficulty I have with Christmas is that it’s marred today by consumerism and gluttony. It’s difficult to admit this because to do so invites accusations of being a ‘scrooge’, but Scrooge’s problem wasn’t that he did not agree with Christmas but that he failed to acknowledge the importance of anything in life apart from the acquisition of money. In this sense there are many more Scrooge’s in the world today than in Dicken’s time even if they celebrate the Yuletide.
If I had to choose a year to mark the beginning of the modern Christmas, I would undoubtedly set upon 1843 for it was then that Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ appeared for the first time and a young civil servant named Henry Cole set upon the idea of the commercial Christmas card as a way to stimulate the Uniform Penny Post. This service had been set up by Rowland Hill three years earlier but had failed to ignite the public imagination. Cole would later come up with the idea of The Great Exhibition, which resulted in the building of The Crystal Palace.
Christmas cards were an overnight sensation, and continued to grow in popularity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries until the decline of postal mail due to the Internet.
To have experienced the sense of optimism that fuelled the Christmas visions of Dickens and Cole must have been like taking L.S.D. Back then the effects of industrialization, especially pollution, were largely unknown and manufacturing seemed to herald a powerful, energetic, future. The mechanized slaughter of two world wars was yet to occur, and science was making inroads into curing disease, especially by reinventing effective sewage systems that kept waste out of drinking water.
The trouble is that this industrial dream turned into such a nightmare that we shifted our manufacturing base abroad so those in other places could wallow in the mire, and in exchange sink us in a sea of plastic Barbie Dolls, My Little Pony’s and this year’s ‘latest thing’ to make our children happy for ten minutes. Do you remember the ‘Cabbage Patch Dolls’?
Remarkably there are psychologists employed by manufacturers whose job it is to devise ways to entice children to make the lives of their parent’s hell unless they buy some God awful thing, or another, from the company catalogue. A society that rewards people for setting children against parents is not one to which I wish to belong.
This year we intend to mark Christmas modestly. It’s a relief to know that there will be no mince pies, pudding, fowl, or much more food than we usually consume. These days I rarely drink, and when I do enjoy it less and less. I will reserve it for when travelling by motor coach at night when a flask of whisky is an aid to slumber.
I continue to send stuff through the postal mail at different times of the year, because I want to and not because of any kind of seasonal obligation.
For the first time in memory I look forward to Christmas.
May God help the rest of you