4 December 2012

Great daze of Christmas*

We are charactistically out of date in our images of Christmas.  Even though there are Yule logs lying around in the parks, most of us live insmokeless zones.  We aren't going out to lug one home, even if we had a grate to burn the brute in.  Apparently we used to decorate our houses with ivy at Christmas, before the Forestry Commission made available the prunings of balding fir saplings.  And ivy goes back to the time of Bacchus.

Stage coaches, boars' heads, waits wassailing, and all the other symbols look backwards to the ghosts of Christmas Past. But future historians will note the real images of our Christmas Present*, in our brisk new Britain.

The Lights: from early autumn until the end of year they used to decorate their main streets with tasteless illuminations in honour of Snow White, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer , and other tribal gods.  Ninety shopping days before Christmas some celebrity would perform the ritual of 'switching on the lights'.  A celebrity was a person whose face or other parts were recognisable because she or he had married a dim royal, taken off her shirt for page 3 or appeared on a celebrity TV programme.

The Shopping:  For these people, shopping for superfluities, rather than necessities was their inexplicable recreation.  In hellish congestion they would shuffle up and down the high streets of the cities all Saturday (no Sunday opening in those days), watching the people 'shopping', and wasting their money prodigally on useless and meretricious objects, which were sold only at this time of year, and whose purpose was often opaque or even invisible.  It has been suggested that 'shopping' was an atavistic survival of medieval ceremonies of penitence and mortification.  But in a society that worshipped material success, they enjoyed conspicuous expenditure.  And part of the attraction seems to have been that after Christmas they could do it all again, exchanging the useless objects for other equally useless items.

The Parties:  For every night of the four weeks leading up to Christmas there were at least a dozen 'Publishers' Parties'.  These ceremonies, for which no scholar has yet suggeted a plausible purpose, were notable for free-loading hordes, noise, and cheap plonk in cardboard cups, if you were lucky.  There were elements of a Mystery Religion about them, with coded messages and formulaic responses.  For example, the incantation, 'Darling, I loved your book', has been decoded as meaning.  'I never read it, but I really enjoyed the bitchy reviews'.

The Jams: As a result of these winter rituals, travelling n the centre of the towns and cities was slower than riding a centipede for the whole of December.   The roads were often blocked motionless with traffic for hours on end.  But these were people who were frightened of solitude.  They actually enjoyed sitting 'jammed' in their metal wombs, alongside millions of others, occasionally honking their horns in pleasure at being at the centre of things, 'where it was all at'.  Jam was the sticky sweet they spread of bread, and accordingly a term of approval.

The Telly:  These were deeply conservative and unimaginative people. So the national television services put on exactly the same dreadful programmes every Christmas, to relieve the public of the need to make conversation with their 'nearest and dearest' when they were marooned with them for the only time of the year.  It has been suggested that such extraordinary productions as Carry on Up the Chimney and  Wogan in the Gloaming were for penitential mortifications.  But they actually enjoyed the recycled cold cabbage.

*  Taken from a newspaper of about 1990 - have things changed since then?!!

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