Christmas blues by Quentin Bates

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Without wanting to snarl ‘Bah Humbug’ at every turn, Ebeneezer Scrooge has my much of my sympathy. The old winter solstice festival, hijacked centuries ago by those Christian types and re-invented as the birthday of Christ, isn’t my favourite time of year.

Fair enough, I grew up in an ostensibly Christian country, but wasn’t brought up as a Christian and I certainly wouldn’t call myself one. Organised religion in all its myriad forms is something I can’t help feeling is a blend of snake oil salesmanship and a triumph of hope over experience, but that’s another matter.

I’d love to see Christmas boycotted in grand style. The fundamentals of Christianity and of most religions, which come down to a basic code of ethics for people who had to get along with each other to survive in a hard world, have long been lost from whatever Christmas was once about. Or maybe Christmas has been determinedly commercial for a lot longer than I’d imagine?

What was a festival of peace, reconciliation and family in the past – as the original pagan winter solstice festival probably also was, along with the birth of the new year and the days finally starting to lengthen – has become an frenzy of consumerism that far too many people quite literally buy right into without a second’s thought; the worst of it being that in the rough-and-tumble of hard-nosed commerce, Christmas begins a few days earlier every year. The natural progression of things presumably means that eventually one Christmas will start right on top of the previous one, maybe with a day or two off here and there for New Year, Easter and August Bank Holiday.

Shops wheel out the Christmas tat pretty much as soon as children go back to school in September. It disappears for a few days around Halloween (a brand new festival in this part of the world, and a fine vehicle for another variety of overpriced disposable tat), and then it’s out again with a vengeance, accompanied by that heinous crime against humanity, Christmas muzak. Some people don’t notice muzak. It just floats over their heads, part of the scenery. I’m not one of them. Muzak at the best of times is a stone in the shoe, grit in the eye, an irritant. Christmas muzak, especially accompanied by sleigh bells, is enough to drive a man to distraction. It drives me out of shops that I’d otherwise tolerate, not screaming, but sometimes wanting to.

But it’s the sheer, bare-faced commercialism of it that grates; and I say this (hypocritically) as I fervently hope that a few of my books will change hands, even wrapped in fancy paper and ribbons. I’d even go so far as to say that a book is the only perfectly acceptable Christmas gift, but I may be biased on that score.

Christmas in Britain owes much to Queen Victoria, who appropriated a few German customs such as scattering your living room floor with pine needles, customs that Prince Albert presumably brought with him; and to Coca-Cola, who invented Santa Claus. All right, the legend of Saint Nicholas and the stuff about the presents goes back a bit further than that, but the white-whiskered old chap in the red suit and the John Lennon glasses was dreamed up by the advertising department of the one of the world’s leading purveyors of toothrot.

There’s another three weeks until Christmas, but we’re being bombarded from every angle by exhortations to buy this or that item of extortionately-priced seasonal junk (batteries not included) as the tempo is steadily ratcheted up. The mantra ‘it’s not Christmas until you’ve bought…’ is starting to wear thin, mainly because it isn’t Christmas yet anyway. Maybe December should just be renamed Christmas? Unfortunately, by the time Christmas does finally roll around, some of us have already had enough of it.

Then there are the parts of Christmas I appreciate. I’m not a complete reincarnation of Ebeneezer Scrooge. I like the few days when work comes to a standstill and some slow time is spent with friends and relatives, preferably over a meal that hasn’t been rustled up in a hurry, and the precious opportunity to lie back and read a book, cover to cover, at one sitting.

I get on fine with the peace and goodwill bit of it as well, and it would suit me just fine if that could be spread across the rest of the year as well. Even an avowed heathen like me can get on with the good sense behind some of the outlandish ideas put forward by a decent Jewish chap who got himself in the soup for saying people shouldn’t treat each other like crap. But it seems that bit of it gets forgotten in the rush to get the shopping done.

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Quentin Bates

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