Back in the 90s I had a friend in Germany, Silke. I went across to see her and her family for New Year, and asked if they'd had a good Christmas. Much to my genuine dismay they told me they didn't bother with it. Instead they just had friends and family round just afterwards every year for a "Reste-Essen". This is where everyone brought all their left-over food, and they had a get together to use it up. On Christmas they did absolutely nothing. No tree, no presents, no cards.
KEINE WEIHNACHTEN? But, but... the Germans own this thing. Almost all those fabulous pagan things that make little baby Jesus' birthday so special come from Germany. These include carrying on the ancient pre-Christian tradition of worshipping trees, and celebrating the shortest day by lighting candles; not to mention Advent calendars, Christmas markets, Stollen, Glühwein, Santa Claus (okay he's a Dutch thing, but close) etc, etc. German Christmases are just so very special. I just couldn't understand it, and frankly it made me ein bißchen traurig.
|Oscar contemplates Christmas|
So, let's be clear that this blog is entirely personal. I'm not advocating that Christmas should be "banned", or to ruin anyone else's fun. I've just got to the point where this year, I utterly understand where Silke's family were coming from. I've cancelled Christmas. Let me explain!
We Have A Choice
Last year I had probably the best, most perfect Christmas of my life to date. My boyfriend Ste came down to my cottage in Suffolk for 4 weeks, we bought our first tree together, nearly removed multiple limbs as we attempted to get it in its holder, baked things together, went ice-skating at Somerset House, cuddled the dog in front of an open fire, he made an incredible veggie Christmas dinner for us, and we visited his family in Liverpool on Boxing Day. Short of snow coming down on the 25th, it was all as perfect and idyllic as a Christmas could be. I loved it.
|Perfection: Christmas 2012|
This year, Ste is in Beijing studying and will have lessons on Xmas Day. I'm off working in Austria on Boxing Day, flying out first thing. My Mutti will be with my brother and sister-in-law in Germany again for the holiday. So if I did do Christmas, it would be short, and it would be with friends who have taken pity on sad bastard me and invited me over. I'll be seeing Ste when the Chinese New Year holiday starts and we're off to Australia/ New Zealand together. That's our huge winter treat this year, not spending Xmas together.
Further, as I was standing in Tesco the other day contemplating all of these particular personal circumstances, staring at the tacky plastic tree leaning over with the exposed cables below, and the wrapped empty cardboard boxes to add "atmosphere", listening to the tinny piped music on repeat, it suddenly occurred to me - I really don't have to do this thing this year. Just because last year was so good, and despite the general pressure to conform, I do actually have a choice each and every year.
|Dear readers: we HAVE a choice!|
Little Baby Jesus
I'm not a Christian, and belong to the ever increasing number of more than 54,000,000 people in the UK who don't go to church regularly. I've therefore certainly no religious reason to celebrate Christ's birth. In any case, we all know there's zero evidence that Christ was born on 25 December. There were apparently shepherds in the fields when he was born, which doesn't happen in December in the West Bank, for a start. The Bible actually doesn't give any date or day for his birth. He may have been born anywhere between 6BC and 4AD, at any time of year. It was only a couple of hundred years later, at the earliest in 273AD, that 25 December was fixed upon. This conveniently coincided with the winter solstice, and the major pagan festival of the "birth of the invincible sun god".
|Classy: Baby Jesus as a Gummi Bear|
I get why Christians want to mark a symbolic day when their saviour was born, but I certainly don't need to personally. It's also clear to me that if you're a believing Christian, you should probably be putting five times the effort into celebrating Easter than Christmas - but hey, that's your call. Finally on this point, the central message of Christmas is "peace and goodwill to all mankind". It kinda strikes me that everyone should be doing that every day anyway: we don't need some day especially set aside to be nice, and then behave like little shits every other day of the year.
The Victorian Christmas: a real raison d'être
Next, it struck me that Christmas back in say, the Victorian age, was a rest-day in a time when people worked 6 days a week, and public holidays were very rare. It was a day when people who had very little indulged themselves with special treats that were completely out of their reach normally. A goose for lunch, for example. Even during my father's lifetime he got oranges at Christmas, which his family couldn't afford during the rest of the year. I'm fortunate enough to be materially very privileged, and I'll readily admit it. Like many people in this country, there's very little I would serve up on the dinner table that I couldn't afford at any other time of year if I really wanted it. I have 2 full days off every weekend, all of our public holidays, and like every worker in the EU, I'm entitled to 4 weeks paid holiday every year.
The point is my very fortunate personal position means that this "Victorian" aspect of Christmases past being a day off work when your belly was properly filled isn't a factor for me. This is a big, significant change over the past 60 years and it applies to many in this country. I'd love to say this is the case for everyone, but of course in Conservative Austerity Britain that increasingly isn't the case. Pictures like the one below are unfortunately a reminder in 2013 that plenty across the country are heading back to the time where having a decent meal is actually something remarkable.
|So depressing that this in Britain in 2013|
Now let's got on to the commercial excess. There's been a big consumer back-lash against Christmas music and displays in stores in early September, but there's still no denying there is the most hideous display of conspicuous consumption and utter tat on sale out there. Just as in every single supermarket across the country, in our local Tesco the shelves are currently groaning under the weight of all the chocolate, the mince pies, the booze. The over-indulgence turns the inner-Puritan stomach in me, especially knowing that people are genuinely short of basic food stuffs in my own country. How great to come out the other side of Christmas without having to diet all through January because I stuffed my gob to excess all of December? The thought of all the food and drink that will be consumed (and wasted) across the UK next month makes me feel faintly queasy.
|The real spirit of Christmas! Stuffing yourself till you're sick.|
I've also genuinely no need of any presents, and really everyone who is close to me is in pretty much the same boat. I find it completely depressing to have to waste money for the sake of it, rushing around looking for something that friends and family might potentially want, knowing they're doing exactly the same for me. The crass materialism so turns me off. I'd got to the stage where I'd rather have fewer "things" in my life than more. I've expressly asked anyone who might get me anything this year not to please. I won't be buying anything for anyone either.
Also what does all the cheap plastic made-in-China shite, and all the over-sized gift sets that are on display, remotely have to do with a traditional Christmas, or showing your loved ones that you actually care for them? There must be the most grotesque emotional and financial pressure on families with kids, who start circling items in catalogues and making on-line wish lists in September. I also have no idea how people afford it. I know you don't have to go down this road with your kids, but when their friends get new X-Boxes, it must be pretty hard not to engage in the whole thing to some extent. We've created a horrible situation as a society where kids expect so much and parents feel guilty if they can't or won't provide.
The Tyranny of Christmas Cards
Even before this year's decision, I long since stopped sending cards out. Remember back at school where you bought a box set and handed out 40 of them, just so you'd get 40 back and think that made you popular? It's a bit like saying you've got 28,000 followers on Twitter, but the only reason is that you're team-follow back and follow 28,000 yourself. In the days before cheap phone calls abroad, free Skype calls, instant email and social media communication, a card was a lovely way of knowing that someone far away was thinking of you. Nowadays when I get one, I look at it, think "ahhh" and it goes straight in the recycling bin. Send me a tweet instead, please - it's far better for the environment and I'll really appreciate it just as much!
|I feel your pain, Ian!|
Also, how EXPENSIVE is it nowadays to do this? I always used to think it was a convenient excuse and they didn't really do it, but begin to understand why people say they're making a donation to charity with the cash.
Family and Friends
The final thing is to comment on the friends/family aspect. It's a lovely, lovely thing to meet up with them, and if Christmas prompts you to do so, great. But there is no need for this to be the occasion to do so. Muslims, Hindus and Jews manage to see their families without Christmas being the impetus. If anything the pressure to have a "perfect time" etc can lead to well-documented domestic stress and fractious family situations.
Compare American Thanksgiving: an occasion to take stock and be thankful for all the good things in one's life and celebrating that thankfulness openly. Families and friends come together in an almost entirely commercial-free zone (let's ignore the Black Friday consumer orgy the following day) and are just "together". That speaks to me so, so much more than the way Christmas in the UK has developed.
And what of those who have no family or friends that they can be with at Christmas? All the images of how it should be must represent a real kick in the teeth for them and a reminder of their isolation.
So there we have it. No tree for me this Christmas 2013. No cards. No booze. No advent calendar. No stuffing myself with food. No stressful battling with the crowds in Norwich shopping precinct. No presents. No excess. How do I feel? Completely liberated from something that has frankly become hollow beyond belief.
Again to be clear, I don't wish anyone else a bad time if it means something different to you: far from it. I guess it's a bit like when I see the Diwali lights and see how special it is for many people - but this year I'm just not part of it. That's not a negative thing: it's less "bah humbug" than "yay, humbug!" It's actually a positive decision for me.
|[Let's be honest: like hell will he let me pull this trick again]|
Will this continue? I've no idea. Ste will be back for Christmas 2014 and we've pencilled in being with his family in Liverpool, because he was away in China this year. Those experiences will be far more special to me than a load of presents, 300 mince pies and 4 gallons of booze. A non-commercially excessive, card free Christmas next year is therefore "on".
But for 2013, and whenever it all just gets too much in the future*, I realise I do have a choice, and it seems to be easier to make than I thought. Maybe I'll do Christmas bi-annually, maybe the cancellation this year will be a one-off. Maybe I'll never do it again, and Santa will never visit me again! Who knows.
It's a little early, but on that note, Happy Christmas, boys and girls ;-)
* See caption to above photo. Who am I kidding.