21st December 2007
I am always ambivalent in my attitude to Xmas. For me personally, as probably for most depressives, it is a difficult time because it demands jollity, cheerfulness and increased social interaction. I am often ill at Xmas ; indeed one year was spent in hospital. I must have been bad because they made every effort to clear the ward so that instead of the usual 20 or 30 patients there were only 4 of us left – another depressive, a schizophrenic and an anorexic. In retrospect this was a comic experience ; the nurses, who in those days (my second stay 1996/7) were committed, and as helpful as possible, made every effort. We all received a present – mine were a pair of gloves (a little ironic as we never went outside!) provided by the Friends of the Hospital. And we had a full turkey dinner with hats and so forth. There were as many nurses as patients. Of course me and the other depressive said nothing, the schizophrenic was having a bad day and said nothing either, and the anorexic was hardly in a position to enjoy Xmas dinner! But I think the nurses were wonderful for trying – it can hardly have been a barrel of laughs for them.
Anyway that is just a comic diversion. It remains true that Xmas is a strain, something of a hurdle, although if I am well I enjoy the day. But I am always unhappy with the anti-materialism, the easy ‘oh its just commercial nonsense nowadays’ attitude. Not that this is anything new, although some people seem to think it is. Trollope took the same position in the mid-19thC! Below I reproduce a highly polemical and deliberately over-stated and provocative piece by Mick Hume rejecting this outlook. But my own reasons for rather rejoicing in Xmas materialism are three-fold…
1.) As a good atheist the less of a religious element the better. Now this is something of a British attitude as in the US the Christians seem to have no problem combining religion and materialism (I still don’t understand how they pull this con-trick off!). But in Britain there is no doubt that the two things are – quite correctly – opposed. So the more materialism the less religion.
2.) A personal reaction to the anti-materialist Xmases of my childhood. Now this was not because we were poor – that would have of course been wholly understandable – it was a matter of anti-materialism. The main present was a source of dread, as it was always designed at improvement; improvement, what is more, in an area in which I was incompetent – so I recall a carpentry set, a chemistry set and a make-your-own radio. With all I failed comprehensively, and the only outcome was – naturally – to give me a lifelong hatred of carpentry, chemistry and electronics. But my mother in particular went further and adopted a genuinely Christian approach – this consisted in inviting some mature student who was studying in the UK to Xmas lunch. I presume there must have been some organisation which arranged this. I cannot recall all our guests, but they certainly included a couple of Roumanians and a Nigerian who arrived in tribal dress. The hilariously ironic thing about this is that my mother – like my father a died-in-the-wool Tory – was behaving a most ‘progressive’ way – this was the early 60’s for heaven’s sake! But as far as I was concerned it just meant that Xmas lunch was an occasion for increased formality and good manners. And I do wonder how much our ‘guests’ enjoyed it! But it was a genuinely Christian Christmas and I respect that as an adult choice – the effect on me was, as with the presents, the opposite intended. So given my natural psychological bent to react against everything from my childhood, I am very pro-materialism in the matter of Xmas.
3.) The class bias and Puritanism of much of the anti-materialist comment. There is a large element of not wishing to see other people enjoy themselves in much of the comment. It is this which Mick Hume brings out so well even if he goes OTT in doing so.
It is not the materialism which is the problem with Xmas. Rather it is precisely that demand for certain social norms which imposes intolerable strains. It is not materialism which leads to the drastic rise in domestic violence at Xmas. It is the fact that the strains within the nuclear family, the need to pretend that all is sweetness and light, that we are all jolly, nice, cheerful people who get along wonderfully well with each other and especially our families. These myths are exposed to reality, tested – and the reality is that much family life has an underlying stratum of power and violence – especially the power of men over, and violence against, women. But that’s not materialism’s fault. It is about exposing social realities. So Scrooge was both right and wrong – his Puritanism and anti-materialism is just that of any capitalist exploiter who hates seeing the workers enjoy themselves, but much of what happens at Xmas is humbug – we lie and pretend. Which is fine if you can manage it for a few days. Tragically for some it is not possible and violence, depression, suicide ensue.
Anyway to finish on a lighter note here is Mick Hume…
>>The anti-Christmas list of indulgences about which we must feel guilty has now been added the crime of eating cranberry sauce. According to university research into “the carbon footprint of turkey and trimmings”, that traditional sauce is “a major offender in terms of carbon dioxide emissions”. Ban the cranberry?
Grinches and grouses who hate Christmas because of the expense, the waste and the fun used to be called mean. Now they proudly call themselves “green”. And while old Ebenezer Scrooge was a figure of public scorn, the new Eco-nezers are top of the tree.
In the name of scrimping and saving the planet, Christmas miserabilism has gone mainstream. The chorus of carols is being drowned out by a cacophony of warnings about the need to buy less, eat and drink less, recycle more and turning more things off. You, like me, ignorantly assumed that all Christmas trees were green? Turns out the only truly green ones are made of recycled cardboard. Instead of poisoning your kids with “toxic” techno-gadgets, why not give them the priceless gift of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth?
Whatever the truth about the complexities of climate change, none of this simplistic sermonising will make any difference. Break down the scary “carbon-guzzling Christmas” headlines into family-sized bites, and the figures are meaningless. Last Christmas the Local Government Association warned that burning 200 old-style Christmas lights eight hours a day for an entire month would waste electricity worth… £2.40.
This is the “war on Christmas” that infuriates an old libertarian Marxist like me; the mean green attack on a secular celebration of the human spirit and our material advance. For the miserabilist tendency, the seasonal message is: “Don’t eat, drink or be merry, or tomorrow the planet dies.”
Scrooge said that “every idiot” who celebrates Christmas “should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”. Today’s Eco-nezers might add that the pudding shouldn’t contain imported berries or be boiled using fossil fuels, that the holly must be organic and the body buried for tree compost. <<
And finally may I wish everyone who reads this as Happy an Xmas period as possible – in whatever way you to choose to make it so which is non-violent and consensual 🙂 – religious, materialist, Green, drunk or sober ; whatever gets you through! And if you can really be happy as well so much the better.