Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: We can lament the early onset of Christmas, but the real pity is the spirit of it doesn't keep up

Festive advertising is in full swing, but why not also the goodwill and going the extra mile for others, asks Gail Walker

The day after Hallowe'en, Christmas began. What was coming for years, has finally arrived - the Christmas season is now two months long. Solid Trees. Tinsel. Fake pressies wrapped up in the supermarkets. Lights. The lot.

The only thing missing, right now, is Santa, and he is definitely on his way as the civic Christmas lights switch-ons are scheduled across the country. Busy times indeed for singers and groups that came third and fourth on the X Factor seven years ago.

It's mid-November and the big chains have released their much-anticipated Christmas adverts, each costing millions and in preparation for months.

For decades, I suppose, we've been listening to doomsday merchants predicting the end of Christmas and we are all familiar with the old complaints about how commercial it is becoming and how the 'true meaning' has been lost.

I've been listening to that all my life. It's true, though, that if someone from, say, 1970, were able to experience what we call Christmas, they would be stunned by the sheer wealth our society exhibits at this time of year, its extravagance, the length of the season, the huge piles of 'stuff' we accumulate each year to make it happen.

Of course, there is want and hardship. But in general it is true that the standard of living, the quality of housing, the expectations of ordinary people, are so much higher than, say, 40 years ago.

Whether it is true that there is less 'goodwill' now than then, less 'kindness' or 'thoughtfulness' now than then, is debatable and probably unverifiable.

You don't get those things piped into your home or topped up in the garage when you're buying petrol.

But what is absolutely true is that there is much less talk of those things at Christmas than there used to be.

The 'season of goodwill' was the old slogan that sold Christmas. That was its brand, its Unique Selling Point... whether or not it was bought by everybody, all the grumps and surly individuals and broken families and drunken misers and the door-slammers and crusty hypocrites and the hail-fellow-well-mets of the world then, is not the point.

If you said 'the season of good will', people knew what you meant.

If you said - as we in Northern Ireland had cause to say - the 'season of peace to all on Earth', we knew what it meant. It's why there was, year on year, an effort made around Christmas to have a pause in the violence, a 'truce' we called it.

It didn't always happen, but there was a hope it might happen, there was some pressure brought to bear to help it happen, there was certainly a huge wish everywhere that what we now call 'this time of year' was marked by a ceasefire.

Such a thing would be thought to be 'appropriate'.

Whether it would be just as appropriate for a 'Happy Holiday' season to be marked by a ceasefire is less clear. But instinct suggests not. Why would winter have such a truce when the big holiday was the summer?

I'm not talking about the real meaning of Christmas as in 'Christ is born'. It seems clearer than ever, year on year, that that particular emphasis is on its way out.

What I mean is it is also clear that the moods and values associated with the 'traditional Christmas message', whether realised or not in the past, whether ignored or abused or parodied in the past, have also been let slip.

So, while it is the time for parties and food and time off work and families and positivity and resolutions, you don't as often see encouragements to be kind to one another, be charitable, be mindful of those less well off, be aware that excess is in itself not a good thing. Maybe I'm wrong. But I haven't seen the adverts yet that promote that sort of thing. Or which urge less selfishness, more self-sacrifice, less anger, more visiting the sick and imprisoned, more compassion in itself as a way of recalibrating one's own life.

All that is left to the 'usual outlets', as they say. And those outlets have, it is clear, a diminishing audience among contemporary citizens.

This isn't to say that people are less kind nowadays or less inclined to charitable giving or goodwill towards others. It's just that the only time of year when such values, without any monetary gain, were actively promoted has been lost. That's a fact.

Maybe we don't need them actively promoted. Maybe we have enough thoughtfulness, charity and kindness as it is and there is nothing to gain from haranguing people who are already doing as much as they can.

But I don't think so, somehow.

Somehow, I think there isn't enough focus on neighbourliness and helping others; not just 'doing no harm', as the medical oath goes, but actually 'doing good'.

It's one thing to enjoy oneself - joy to the world, is one of the values of Christmas - but what sets the season apart from other celebrations (holidays, birthdays, weddings and so on) is that aspect of doing good, going out of one's way to do good to others.

Now, if we were starting that part of Christmas earlier and earlier and earlier each year, I don't think anyone would mind one bit.

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