Belfast Telegraph

Why Christmas seems to have lost all its spirit

By Gail Walker

The old song says, "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" - a sentiment which seems to work equally for the very young, the elderly and the friskier party-goers among us as the spirits rise in the festive season.

The idea of gifting at Christmas may have had some meaning during much less-affluent times than ours - and by those I mean the last 40 or so years when, no matter how you count it up, our daily lives in the West have become marked by wealth and comfort beyond the wildest dreams of the vast majority even in the 1930s, let alone the centuries prior to the 20th.

We have all heard easily caricatured tales of children waking up delightedly on Christmas morning to an apple and a bar of toffee stuffed in their stocking and some variety of wooden or tin toy under the tree. Tobacco for dad, perfume for mum and an arrangement of small token gifts for relatives.

Over the last decades, though, it has been an utter Babylon of expenditure - suites, cars, kitchens, smartphones, TVs and vast quantities of food and drink.

Charities will remind us that not everyone can indulge in the festival of spending. But the truth is - as a short trip to any city or town centre will demonstrate - that many thousands of us, the vast majority, spend money hand over fist at Christmas, including those who can least afford it.

Of course, everyone pretends to be "sensible"; everyone complains about "commercialisation"; everyone fondly recalls "simpler" Christmases of earlier days; but the aggressive marketing of the season and its equally aggressive shoppers tell another story.

This isn't a complaint about the secularisation of the season, by the way. That particular goose was cooked decades ago. Religion at Christmas has been replaced by strange feelgood desires to do with sentimentality and babies and old people being grateful for a telescope being sent to them by balloon, as the John Lewis ad has it. That's just one of many adverts peddling a fairly grim vision of what the "season" means.

Like online casinos asking us to be "gambling aware', the sliver of human sentiment is itself only an extra selling point, another ruse to suck us in.

No, what I mean is that we've all got more "knowing", more cynical, as the years have gone by. And that's not just the natural ageing of a particular generation - the society we live in seems smarter, slicker and a great deal harder, even as the season itself becomes ever more sickly in its sentimentality.

Christmas may start earlier each year, but it has much less of an enduring impact on us than it ever did, which was never really much to begin with.

Of course, the irony is that voicing these views - mild enough as they are - is enough to prompt comparisons with Scrooge. As if Scrooge opposed the commercialisation of the season, which, of course, he did not. He encouraged it as a means of benefiting the economy as a whole and taking the burden of charity off taxpayers like himself. Dickens felt that there was a core of goodwill about Christmas - he did invent it after all - which we needed to be reminded about. It wasn't a churchy thing - there is no Christian allegory at all in A Christmas Carol - but it was about kindness, generosity, patience, neighbourliness, family and open-heartedness.

Are those what we think the season is about? We would all like to think so, of course; it makes our self-indulgence much less worrisome. But if we actually took stock of what we do at Christmas to demonstrate any of those characteristics, I wonder how much time we would have spent on them as opposed to money on things.

For Christians, especially clergy, the season is an annual opportunity to persuade and cajole the public at large, whose minds are for a brief period turned accidentally to altruism. It's a spiritual Klondike, if you like; but annually, though, no gold is struck.

The season passes and the churches and their wares go unbothered for another year. Guilty contributions to obvious charities may rise for a few days, but the pews continue to empty. Which is quite a feat given the fact Christmas is a fairly unique selling point for Christianity. Even Santa hasn't saved the Church.

Maybe the best we can hope for is, like the old days of the Troubles, we'll experience something like a Christmas truce - a few safe days between Christmas Eve and New Year when another dispensation is in operation. One which smiles a bit more, waves us across the road, offers us their place in the queue, looks in on us if we haven't been seen, leaves our bins out and takes them in, keeps an eye on the house if we are in hospital. That sort of thing. And so on and so forth.

Until it's grim business as usual again in 2016.

Belfast Telegraph


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