In a modern British city, what is Christmas really about? Richard Porch traces the trajectory of the Christmas build-up which dominates society for countless weeks year on year.
The modern Christmas is more an excuse for celebrating the end of another year than observing a Christian religious festival, let’s face it. The religious component has steadily eroded over the years; it is about time someone got up and declared it a purely secular event. It is also one of the most important times of the year for retailers for whom a good (defined as profitable) Christmas is one that enables them to survive for another year. Okay, the religious element creeps in as some sort of subliminal message on Christmas cards, I will give you that.
The thing that fascinates me about Christmas cards is the way they still fall back on clichés. I bought a card last year that had three children walking beside their mother in what I think the illustrator intended to represent a rural village setting with snow on the ground. That the shopping was being done in what clearly looked like a precinct rather than the normal linear shopping street of yore, was neither here nor there. The shops looked more like tiny retail units even allowing for the fact they had their windows squared off into small panes of glass, of a kind not seen since the 1840s. One of them undoubtedly sold scented candles. An old-fashioned cast iron lamp post bafflingly ornamented with a red bow cast a soft-focus seasonal glow on (successively) a twenty-foot high civic Christmas tree, garlanded and bejewelled with baubles, an old red post box with (naturally) a robin on top and (unaccountably) a sprig of holly. In the distance a village church with a squat Norman tower beckoned, unquestionably this is where the family were going once they had dropped all the presents off in the free car park behind the supermarket. As far as pictorial seasonal clichés go, it had ticked every box. In reality, the small kids would be being dragged along by one hand and with the other be sending texts with their iPhones. In the real world, the shops would all be large-footprint national retailers whose windows would be decorated according to some corporate display manual. The civic Christmas tree would have a metal palisade around it to deter folk who might otherwise attempt either to climb it in a drunken funk or set fire to it. And I don’t know anyone who goes to church even for a once-a-year carol service unless they have young kids who they feel obliged to take at least once in their lives. Snow virtually never makes an appearance at Christmas and it would never be used to build a civic snowman replete with a scarf and bobble hat. The predominant colour in the card (apart from white) was red. It’s just the hypocrisy that grates, the piling up of clichés one on top of the other as if the mere deployment of them guarantees a response. Which it does.
It helps that the festive season occurs at the end of a twelve-month cycle divided into four seasons. It also dovetails nicely with the arrival of cold, dark winter nights and the remote possibility of snow. As such it is a brilliant excuse for seasonally-focused end of year celebrations – imagine Christmas taking place in June. While the New Year celebrations have an entirely different and less extensive character to them, they are strictly functional. Their role is to do no more than signal the end of one year and the start of another. The Christmas festivities are not like that. For a start, the build-up to them takes months and drags in the whole of society.
Christmas is like a Black Hole in that it is capable of distorting time and space. It does this by being – like a Black Hole – all-embracing and impossible to avoid. By that I mean it embraces and sucks into its maw the whole of society whether or not you are a practising Christian (since when has that ever mattered?). The gravitational ‘pull’ of it begins in late September and increases steadily for the next three months.
Christmas has its benefits. As an agent for positive (if cosmetic) change in the built environment, it is second to none. Christmas makes local councils put up decorative street lighting that endows otherwise anodyne city streets with a cheerful glow. The knock-on effect is that it then induces retailers to install seasonal window displays to encourage window shopping. This throws a coloured light onto passers-by dressed drably in greys and browns against the early winter cold. And, what Dickens once described as “that German toy”, a large civic Christmas tree, will brighten up some key civic space at the heart of your town or city. If indeed it has one. The combined effect (if you throw in winter food markets, ‘Winter Wonderlands’ (the by now generic term for an ice rink with sundry themed fairground-type attractions), and a parade to inaugurate it all in early November) is that you have the modern city at Christmas.
In addition, the decorative aspect of the festivities has leaked out into the suburbs too. As a social phenomenon, its genesis is difficult to pin down, but it seems to have started in the early 1990s and has gathered momentum ever since. I refer of course to the tendency for people to want to decorate the exterior of their house with the culturally agreed iconography of Christmas lighting. By that I mean bulbous plastic snowmen, Santa Claus climbing a ladder and, by dangling short strings of lights down vertically, the palest of pale stylistic imitations of real icicles. I have no problem with any of them. It seems to me if people want to jolly up the exterior of their properties then let them go ahead. As an exercise in taste, it is usually a non-starter but then that isn’t the aim. A good portion of it is to demonstrate how enthusiastic you are about Christmas and the rest is just self-advertisement. Sorry if that sounds a bit curmudgeonly. It’s just that I remember as a child the fullest extent of informing the world that you were keen on Christmas (if indeed you felt the need to do so) ran to having a prim three-foot-high (plastic) tree in the front window with a discreet show of lights adorning it that gently winked away at passers-by. There was no one-upmanship involved and certainly no desire for a kind of localised fame based on the extravagance of your seasonal lighting. This said such displays of seasonal spirit enable one to gauge how the celebration of Christmas is gathering pace according to when one sees the first house front decorated. I have seen them switched on in late November and remember they don’t normally come down until the 6th January. But, given that the owner of the property foots the electricity bill, who cares? You get all this extra festive street lighting at no cost to the ratepayer.
Back to the city. I think the first sign that Christmas is on its way is when one sees the comic annuals for sale in W.H. Smith’s. The Dandy, Beano and oddities like People’s Friend get published around the end of September. As a child, this unquestionably fired the starting gun on Christmas for me. I was always bought a dozen annuals with hubristic post-war names like Victor, Valiant, Tiger, Lion or Hurricane that laid down the foundation of my interest in books and reading ever since. They were inevitably full of stories of heroism from World War II, sporting heroes and some staple favourites like Lord Snooty and Desperate Dan of frankly baffling provenance. Interestingly war stories didn’t drop out of boy’s comics until well into the 1980s, some forty years after the war ended. I suppose it must have been a struggle to find a vehicle for words and pictures that would embrace bravery and self-sacrifice in a world increasingly falling prey to the cult of the individual. This vacuum came to be filled by comic strips on footballers instead.
After the annuals have appeared it is only a matter of time before one sees the first tentative displays of seasonal cards taking up only a few racks initially. By the first week of October, the gravitational pull of Christmas starts to properly make itself felt. Wrapping paper and gift tags will bolster those first tentative displays of cards and advertisements for seasonal meals, venues for office parties and ideas for presents will start to appear in local freesheets. By mid-October, the momentum behind Christmas is properly developed and the first seasonal shop window displays will have appeared. This is the beginning of the phase where, whenever you venture anywhere with shops, you will not be able to avoid Christmas. At the end of October, the template is fixed and even though there is still a number of weeks to go, you are firmly in the tractor beam of the Christmas Death Star and are being reeled in.
November is my favourite month of the year. This is because the clocks have gone back, shortening the days, the first frosts have appeared and the leaves on the trees have turned from brown to red and started to fall. November is the last month of the autumn and you are basically in the ante-room to Christmas. The shops are all pushing Christmas now and nothing else. They will have designated stand-alone Christmas ‘gift zones’ selling all manner of plastic crap imaginable. There will be Christmas tree baubles of a design both traditional (metallic spheres and stars encrusted with glitter that transfers immediately to your hands, face and clothing) and some trendy stuff that looks just like the electronic componentry leftover from some future war. There will be enough gift wrap of painfully unoriginal design to encircle the globe twice over. Stuff destined to have a lifespan measured in the time it takes to tear it off a present and aim it, compacted into an expensive ball, into the inevitable black plastic bag which is itself destined to find its way to the tip. My own pet hate is the scented candle. Who the frick invented that? Could there be anything naffer? Exactly who wants the fire risk of a lighted candle that smells like cheap air freshener? Remember, this is only November and you have not even reached December yet.
December arrives and may as well just be renamed as Christmas Month because that’s what it’s all about. The mental torture of trying to come up with a plausible excuse for not attending the office party begins. Gentle, self-selecting souls in offices all over the nation will produce scrawny bands of tinsel that look like Pop Art barbed wire designed by Andy Warhol. These will adorn twenty-year-old artificial Christmas trees that have languished for eleven months of the year in the room where the photocopier paper is kept. Corporate decisions large and small get deferred until ‘we get to the other side of Christmas and everyone is back’ and the gravitational pull of Christmas really takes hold and slows reality down. In Britain, it will slowly distort the life of the country from around the 18th December right through until the first full working week of the New Year. Depending on when it falls each year this will usually mean a two to three week period when virtually nowhere is fully manned and the excuse is Christmas. Britain is not so much shut over Christmas – just in a state of suspended animation. Plus, you are now falling toward the ‘event horizon’ this is basically where you reach the bit of the Black Hole where you fall right through it into God knows where. In reality (and there’s very little of this left by then), from the second week of December, the focus rests entirely on Christmas Day and anything you buy, be it a pair of socks or a handkerchief, has to be wrapped up and put away for the day. At least it does in my house. Whatever happens, it cannot just be bought and used. By now nothing else matters and thoughts are turned to where the turkey will be bought when the big food shop will take place and which relations you will be seeing or trying to avoid over Christmas. At lunchtime, the streets are thronged with party-goers lurching back to offices made bearable by a skinful of drink. If you’re really unlucky there will be a carol concert held in some draughty reception area and middle-aged men and women emboldened by a glass or two of cheap wine will sing moderately well and caper around in jumpers adorned with stylised reindeer or snowmen on them. They too will excuse themselves because it is Christmas.
The day itself will come and go as quickly as any other day. It will have as a background that special quiet that descends on Christmas Day given that most roads will be devoid of traffic and every nuisance who would normally be out and about is at home sitting glazed in front of some five-foot-wide television watching Doctor Who with the kids. Produced in Wales and now made cinematically ambitious by the advent of CGI, it is the perfect accompaniment to the unreality that we visit upon ourselves at the end of each year.
Oh, and just for the record; Dickens did not invent Christmas via A Christmas Carol in 1843, Washington Irvine did fully seventeen years earlier in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. Though the former, with typical genius, employed time travel and ghosts around which to structure his story, the latter showed even the late Georgians were starting to get sentimental about the season and what people used to do with it.
In this year of the Coronavirus pandemic – bah fricking humbug to you.
Richard Porch is a regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.