Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Over a Christmas Barrel
TOM SYKES looks at some of the worrying aspects of Christmas

HERE IN BRITAIN, sometimes as early as October, all the mythical images of Christmas are wheeled out to make you buy things you generally don’t need. Santa Claus hands presents to kids in shopping malls, wearing his trademark beard and red outfit, which in fact was invented in the 1930s by the Coca-Cola Company’s marketing department. Suddenly, advertising is awash with talking turkeys and snowy meadows. A wisecracking partridge in a pear tree tells you about an attractive new investment opportunity. Good King Wenceslas is impersonated by a struggling actor, stuffing his face with chocolate and telling you how good it is. The frankly rather dull ritual of city centres turning their Christmas lights on eerily coincides with the start of the late-night shopping season.

Now before you start thinking this is all sounding a bit cynical and Grinch-ish (you have read this column before, right?), let me state that I thoroughly enjoy Christmas, even though I am neither religious nor very materialistic. For me Christmas should be a time of humanist kindness, when we find a little extra in ourselves to care about others ... plus it’s not a bad excuse to party like The Great Gatsby himself. I just think it’s worth drawing attention to some of its more worrying aspects.

According to The Daily Telegraph, U.K. shoppers spent around £60 million over the last Yuletide, two-thirds of that on plastic cards. Some £2 billion were spent on Christmas Eve alone as the less organised of us did our last-minute shopping for the Big Day.

This is the secular, consumer Christmas that the British have been enjoying for a long while. It has little to do with marking the birth of an ascetic prophet who eschewed material comforts to spread the word of love and humility. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say, “And lo Jesus didst kick back with a box of Celebrations to watch his brand new 30-inch plasma-screen TV with Dolby Surround Sound.” Arguably our modern Christmas customs owe more to the ‘old religion’ of paganism and its Winter Solstice, when the harshness of the European fall would be broken up with a song, a dance and a feast.

But given that this country, like most others, is going through a ‘credit crunch’ which has seen mortgage prices rise by 100 per cent, the cost of food up by 75 per cent and fuel up by 50 per cent, perhaps we need to rethink our excessive approach to Christmas and life in general. If the forecasts are correct, we will have far less money to spend on the coming festive season due to drastically-reduced credit and mounting debt. Additionally, the constant shopping, car-driving and cheap flying that has come to be regarded as almost a human right for the salaried middle classes is seriously threatening the planet. The clothes, shoes, toys and electronic goods that are bought as presents each year use up valuable non-renewable resources. For example, it takes five gallons of oil just to manufacture a new computer, never mind all the coal and/or oil that will be needed to power it throughout its life. On top of this, George Monbiot points out in his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, that the importing of cheap consumer goods and foodstuffs from abroad adds hugely to the emissions tab. By way of a solution Monbiot suggests that we stop giving ourselves the treats (like long-haul flights) that the vast majority of the earth’s population do without already. We have to start mending our shirts and our stereos instead of simply throwing them in the bin when they become unfashionable. We need to cycle and walk whenever possible. We need to become self-sufficient regarding our food and energy.

Other commentators have likened the effort needed to tackle global warming to that of the ‘war effort’ of 1939-45, when the British people (along with their counterparts abroad) ‘downsized’ for the greater good of defeating fascism. Rationing was a fact of life until 1954, and those brought up at that time formed frugal habits that the rest of us would do well to emulate. This needn’t be a cause for Scrooge-like misery—there will be side benefits on the way to saving the world such as improved fitness, nutrition and contentment.

Because contentment, as Oliver James points out in his excellent book, Affluenza, is something that seems to have declined in inverse proportion to our prosperity. The society of the spectacle and its visions of perfection dreamed up by modern PR and communications systems have set up unrealistic goals and aspirations for normal people. There is unbelievable pressure to conform along material lines—“Mummy! Daddy! All my classmates are getting this for Christmas, so I must have it, too!”—which only creates envy and ennui. Choice—the watchword of the last three or four political generations—has left us indecisive and unfulfilled.

Some 165 years ago, Charles Dickens, a literary Jiminy Cricket to the Victorian psyche, published his classic Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol. The protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge despises Christmas because it promotes charity, sharing and compassion—outrageous notions to a hard-nosed capitalist who spends his holidays counting out his pennies. Scrooge radically changes his views after he is visited by spirits exemplifying the dangers of selfish inhumanity. What is interesting about A Christmas Carol is that it is atypical of its author’s oeuvre. Its simple moral point is animated not by the grungey realism and social drama that one usually associates with Dickens, but rather by the metaphorical power of the supernatural and the mythological. This latter approach, I would argue, has a far more profound psychological (not to say downright scary) effect upon the reader, even if it requires a bigger suspension of disbelief than lifelike descriptions of poorhouses and cholera victims. Had Scrooge been harassed by a Ghost of Early 21st Century Christmas (not a snappy title, I know) he might have been warned about the capture of the tradition by consumerism and its adverse implications for our world. Dickens of course couldn’t have foretold this, but his implication of what constitutes a good Christmas—indulging yourself and others once a year only after a period of frugal restraint—makes sense today as we count the cost of 24/7 excess to our wallets and to our environment.

TOM SYKES was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1979, and graduated from the University of East Anglia in 2001. He is the co-editor of the travel book, No Such Thing as a Free Ride?, which was serialised in the London Times and named Observer Travel Book of the Week. He has published short fiction and articles in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Southeast Asia. His novel, The Blank Space, is published by Pendragon Press later in the year.

Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine


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