We’ve just got home from an afternoon at our local Christmas markets. We live fairly close to the town centre, so going and getting a cup of Glühwein is as simple as putting shoes on and going round the corner.
Now that I’m home in the warmth, I’ve just opened the newsfeed, and what do I see but the annual Complaint About Christmas. Nell Frizzell, writing in the Guardian, explains why she’s opting out of Christmas:
Christmas is the stick with which millions of us beat ourselves into brandy-soaked agony for being poor, single, childless, lonely, or simply bad at being jolly. It’s one thing to be single, skint and surrounded by dysfunctional relatives, but it’s quite another when the entire capitalist world is telling you that this is the most magical time of the year. We seem to have lost the script to a pantomime we never even believed in. We have ruined Christmas, without even trying.
Except that Christmas, in its modern incarnation, is an intrinsically capitalist enterprise. You can read here about how Victorian confectioners and other merchants quickly realised that Christmas was an ideal time to sell stuff, and how the modern orgy of spending evolved from there.
Because of all of that, I’ve spent most of my adult life being pretty cynical about Christmas. It all came to a head a few years ago, when I watched a little boy of about six, sitting on his mother’s lap, practically hyperventilating from stress. He was being given present after present, by doting grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, and it was too much for him. At a very young age, he was expected to open the presents and exclaim in delight at whatever was inside, to satisfy the adults who’d bought them. If he wasn’t sufficiently delighted, the present givers were visibly disappointed, which they showed by picking up the present and wiggling it in his face, to get him to engage with it. But the presents kept coming – a tidal wave of crap rolling over his lap, that eventually overwhelmed him.
Since living in Germany, though, Mr BC and I have really got into the spirit of things, mostly because it’s impossible not to. For a start, the town council drops pine trees off on our street, one per every two houses. We live in an historic area, and it’s expected that the price we will pay for this is help to keep it looking nice for visitors. Decorating the Taxpayer Tree is one of the obligations.
Nobody gives you instructions on how to decorate the trees, but you naturally understand that some things – like tinsel and coloured lights – are verboten. Bows are OK, balls are OK, and wooden ornaments are even better. The town’s decorations themselves are all based around pine trees and white lights. About a month before Christmas, the sound of hammering and sawing comes from the town square, and bundles of pine trees are dragged in and left lying on the ground, like dead bodies wrapped in green.
And then, all of a sudden, a wooden village throws its doors open, the music cranks up, and the kettles start simmering with hot wine. All the neighbours come out and have a drink together, and the people in the huts recognise us from last year, and it’s a reminder that we exist as part of a community.
As evening falls and braziers get lit, it’s also a glimpse into a much older time, when this was predominantly an agricultural festival centred around the winter solstice – a celebration of plenty, before the famine months of January, February and March. It was when cattle were slaughtered, making it the last time fresh meat would be available, and the time of year when wine and beers finished their fermentations. Celebrating Christmas means taking part in a deep human ritual, that’s been going on since Neolithic times.
And then there are all the little rituals we’ve piled on top. I’ve just finished eating some gingerbread cake made by a friend of ours, from her grandmother’s recipe. Her children don’t like it, and she was going to stop making it this year, except that we put our hands up to take some. She was – and I don’t exaggerate – thrilled that she had a reason to keep her grandmother’s recipe alive.
We don’t, in the West, have many rituals left to us: weddings, funerals, Armistice Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s. That’s pretty much it in terms of times where we can down tools as a community. Contrast that to the middle ages, where every other day was a feast day or a saint’s day. And of what we have left, only Christmas Day reliably either brings us together, or forces us to reflect on just why we’re not coming together. It’s when employers shut their doors and the whole country – with a few medical and emergency exceptions – takes a much-needed break. In a world where private time is becoming a privilege that can be taken away at any time by employer demands, that alone is reason to celebrate.
Which brings me to a relatively modern Christmas ritual: the lament over the commercialisation of Christmas, and the worry about the way Christmas festivities serve to make the lonely, the sick and the bereft even more isolated.
I understand this – my mother died a few days after Christmas three years ago, and my grief renews as Christmas approaches. But, overall, this is a good thing. What other time of year do we all stop and think about the people left out? About the people who have died and the people we don’t see any more? How often, at other times of the year, do we stop and think about the corrosive effect of filling our lives with stuff?
After all, the solution to social evils like loneliness isn’t to pretend they don’t exist – it’s to do something about them. Christmas is very, very good at drawing those things to our attention.
And how often, frankly, do you get to start the day with a chocolate? Mr BC and I have got into the whole German Advent calendar ritual, where each day presents you with a new chocolate, right up to Christmas Eve. We like it so much we thought about buying 12 Advent calendars each, so we could keep going the whole year.
Anyway, it’s the last day of the Christmas markets today, so time to go and get another hot wine before the place closes at 9pm. And then we can enjoy the next ritual on the calendar – all the neighbours coming out and pilfering the leftover Christmas market trees, to put up in their living rooms.