Belfast Telegraph

Give me simple customs and stuff your Christmas turkey

By Fionola Meredith

I'm not cut out for Christmas. For a start, I have a resistance to socially-dictated celebration: the seasonal round of unspoken, but almost universally accepted, rules that tell us what, how and when to celebrate.

I don't want to do things just because everyone else is doing them — in fact, that's usually a reason not to.

It's not just Christmas, it's the same on Valentine's Day. That's the last day in the year I want to receive a bunch of flowers.

I don't want a bouquet of roses because it is socially prescribed that you honour your lover; I want them to come on a different day, unexpectedly, as a spontaneous gesture. They smell better that way.

The superficial sameness of the public experience of Christmas wearies me: gaudy tinsel, comedy socks, the annual appearance of Advocaat, the terrible eggy Dutch liqueur.

Endless articles in the papers about what side up to cook the turkey and ways to win over people who don't love Brussels sprouts.

Shops full of dresses with too many sequins and marabou feathers. Awful cracker jokes, festive pot pourri with the intensity of cinnamon-scented teargas.

And too much over-priced plastic tat everywhere. It as is someone — definitely not God — has decided that there is only one raucous, expensive, overblown way to experience Christmas and we must all conform to that rule.

Feeling Scrooge-like yet? Part of the trouble is that I don't like excess, especially not commercially-driven excess. It makes me feel giddy, a bit sick and disconnected from the things that really matter.

My philosophy is: if things can be simple, let them be simple. There's more pleasure for me in giving or receiving a few thoughtful, well-chosen gifts than in wheelbarrow-loads of random stuff.

But there is no real opt-out, especially if you have children, and the seasonal hysteria is hard to resist.

Yesterday, for example, I found myself standing in a well-known entertainment store, swearing profusely under my breath. My ears were assaulted by a soundtrack of torture-elves chanting inanities and shaking sleigh bells.

I was looking for a film for my son, but my way was blocked by several gormless-looking shoppers who appeared to be stuck in suspended animation. Another desperate present-seeker was digging her basket sharply into the backs of my thighs. That sense of physical discomfort, combined with mounting rage and frustration? Pure Christmas. Goodwill to all men.

Even when you seek out a bit of spiritual sustenance, an antidote to the babbling festive tedium, things can go awry.

A few years ago, I attended the midnight mass on Christmas Eve at St Anne's in Belfast. It started off well, with the haunting voices of the young choristers rising through the dimly-lit cathedral.

Perhaps this was going to be the real Christmas? I was looking for grandeur and mystery, but then the dean preached a humdrum and pedestrian sermon about road safety, of all things, and the magic evaporated again.

Much as I dislike excess, I've no time for the modern-day piety of charity gifts, either. Who wants to find a non-existent goat under the tree on Christmas morning?

By all means buy a goat, or adopt a polar bear, but do it for yourself and because you feel it's the right thing to do. Choosing it as a present for someone else smacks too much of the grand, self-sacrificing gesture.

You haven't sacrificed anything except the person's reasonable expectation of a bottle of whisky, or a gift-wrapped orchid. So they get nothing, yet you get to bask in the rosy glow of flaunted altruism.

When it comes to Christmas, perhaps I'm trapped in the wrong gender. A recent survey found that most men believe that women make far too much fuss about it and, if they were in charge of proceedings, things would be very different.

No visits to the inlaws, don't bother with Christmas cards and steak and chips all round for lunch. Sounds like a plan. But I couldn't do without my Mum's mince pies.

In the absence of a radical overhaul of Christmas, I'll just have to accept the reality. And even for a cynic like me, there are moments of joy.

I love the old Irish custom of putting a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. Away from the lurid chaos of the festive season, it's a quiet, homely gesture of welcome, a point of light and hope at the darkest time of year. Nollaig shona dhuit.

Belfast Telegraph

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