I always tell myself I like Christmas, but the older I get, the harder it is to pinpoint why.
I think it’s 90% nostalgia. Memories of big, sparkly 1990s Christmasses, primary school discos, Wham! and Paul McCartney, relatives since disintegrated, communities since dispersed.
Present-day Yule is nothing like that. And my mounting cynicism and deepening politicisation have gradually knocked the baubles off what’s left.
When I was a kid, I loved the presents. Then I turned into a hardcore anti-consumerist. After that, I liked it for the food. Then I went environmental vegetarian (and developed a stomach condition that makes me feel sick whenever I eat anything that isn’t lentil and vegetable mush, but that’s a hypochondriac odyssey in of itself).
Subtract all that, and there’s not much left. The weather’s bad. The day itself is dull. The telly is near-universally shit – just inane, barely-wavering schmaltz (as I write this on Boxing Day, I’ve got Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees on in the background), interspersed with the odd bit of Eastenders-style misery porn.
But I still feel like I like it. Despite it all, I can’t bring myself to reject it. To renounce the red sleigh man and all his works.
I think that’s down to a subliminal desire to hang on to the nice memories – of simpler, more innocent, probably happier times. And two remaining Christmassy things I haven’t gone off yet. The lights. And the time off.
The perennial whinge about Christmas getting earlier and earlier is probably true. I can tell you exactly when it started this year – November the sixth.
Around the corner from my palatial bedsit headquarters full of go-go dancers and plasma TVs is a mini Tesco. I used to go to Co-op out of a vague sense it was more ethical, but Tesco is much better at stocking the strange things I have to eat these days, so I nearly always end up in there.
I went over on October the 31st and, as you’d expect, it was full of pumpkins and cobwebs. The next morning, all the Halloween stuff had evaporated. It was all about Bonfire Night instead – and that’s how it stayed until the day itself, November the 5th.
But then I went in after work on the 6th, and abruptly it was Christmas. Cards, wrapping paper, advent calendars, cardboard crackers hanging from the ceilings. From nothing to Noddy Holder in the space of a few hours. Within days, the staff were in Christmas jumpers (that humiliating new workplace ritual I imagine some like, and plenty more loathe – and no, this wasn’t the charity day, that was December the 15th).
Now, before I get onto what I really want to talk about, let’s get the obvious point out of the way – November the sixth is too early. Guy Fawkes Night shouldn’t fire the starting gun on the festive season.
The earliest it should begin looking reasonably Christmassy is December the 1st. But that should just be the starting point. It should very gradually build in festive intensity from there. You shouldn’t, for example, find the office playlist switched to 100% Christmas music from December 2nd, as happened where I work.
Here’s why I’m bothered enough to write about this. In pushing the start point earlier and earlier each year, retailers are spoiling something that millions of people enjoy.
It’s not the general population asking for mince pies in November. Everyone complains about it, in fact. But the reason the businesses do it is simple – they want the longest, most Christmassy Christmas build-up possible, so people start spending their money early, and keep spending right through to December the 24th.
It might seem superficially lovely that they’re ‘getting into the spirit’, playing the music, wearing the kooky jumpers and so on. But, when you think about it, it’s creepily manipulative. It’s bordering on thought control. It’s consumer capitalism’s attempt to squeeze as much out of you as there is to squeeze.
There might be some meagre good news. Just looking at it rationally, they’ve possibly now stretched Christmas as far as it can go. Halloween is nowhere near as profitable, but it’s valuable enough for big business to want to avoid the two overlapping. Push it any earlier, and that’s exactly what will happen.
But they’ll find other ways to make more money. They’ve already imported Black Friday from the States. I expect similar sales gimmicks to pop up over the next few years. But it’s grimly possible they could go even further.
On Christmas morning, there was a terrible film on. It had Dudley Moore in it. I think it might just be called The Santa Claus Movie – something like that. Anyway, there’s a moment in it where a generic corporate villain reveals his master plan for boosting toy sales – Christmas 2.
It sounds ludicrously far-fetched at first – and I don’t seriously think they’ll ever come up with something as crass as that in the real world. But they’ve made up traditions before. Grandparents Day was never a serious thing in the UK, but you can buy cards for it now.
I can honestly see retail eventually inventing some sort of summertime Christmas equivalent. Some excuse to make and sell cards, and presents, and food and booze. And if they do, I bloody hope I don’t live to see it.
Apparently, MacDonalds now ‘launches’ its Christmas menu. Someone excitedly came over and told me that at work the other week. I keep hearing about businesses and brands ‘launching’ Christmassy things. I don’t really know what it means. The word makes me think of Cape Canaveral.
It’s got an annoying ring of presumptuousness about it. I feel the same about the John Lewis Christmas advert. They’ve tried to turn it into a new Christmas tradition – to make people think and say things like ‘it’s not Christmas until you’ve seen the John Lewis ad!’. Other companies have caught on. The supermarkets have them now. Argos has one. Tax-dodging slave-drivers Amazon have a particularly nauseating one. I suppose, really, they’re all just following the example of the Coca Cola truck, which people bafflingly now pilgrimage to see.
But again – they’re not attempting to enhance people’s experience of Christmas. They’re blood-sucking commercial entities trying to permanently insert their hustling into the festive calendar.
It’s not done for the love of the season. It’s done because Christmas is the most lucrative sales opportunity of the year. And, if Christmas is going to be anything other than a corporate feeding frenzy, it’s something we need to resist.
I’m in my childhood bedroom, which is the place I feel most comfortable in the world. I’ve drenched it in fairy lights, and am sat up too late writing next to a cheapo fan heater. It’s my own funny little Christmas tradition. I look forward to it every year.
Over the past few evenings spent like this, I’ve been thinking about what a ‘good’ Christmas would look like. By good, I mean ethical. Which in turn probably just means ‘in line with my values system’.
Unsurprisingly, it would involve junking much of what we’ve come to expect. I’m not going to say presents would be abolished. That would be too dictatorial. But the retail frenzy would end.
If you wanted to make someone something, or paint someone something, or draw someone something, or buy someone one or two small things that they’d actually use, that would be fine. But that wouldn’t be the point of the occasion. You wouldn’t expect presents. Some years you might get something. Others you might get nothing at all.
That would go some of the way to righting the other big wrong of contemporary Christmas, which is the waste. I think wrapping paper, for instance, is insane – millions of miles of it, whole forest’s worth, churned out every year, applied to presents for about 48 hours, then ripped up and thrown in the bin.
But good Christmas would have a very different approach to food, too. In 2015, Unilever (boo, hiss) reckoned that the equivalent of four million Christmas dinners got thrown away. We buy far too much food this time of year. When you think about it, the amount of food the average person eats on Christmas day is disgusting, and there’s always tons left.
I’m not going to wander too far into self-parodying territory and insist everyone eats kale fritters for their Christmas lunch. But for health, for the environment and for animal welfare, the nation needs to get over its obsession with meat.
I think in my ideal universe vegetarian Christmas lunches would be far more common (take it from me, roast dinner without the meat can still be delicious). If people absolutely had to have their turkey, it would be local and ethically sourced – or at least as ethical as it can be when you’re raising something with the express purpose of killing and eating it.
Once that’s all out of the way, what’s left? Time off. About the most valuable thing about modern Christmas is that some people get time off work. In my world, that would be radically extended.
My mother has spent the last twenty years working on a till, and is back to work already. She was back to work on Boxing Day, in fact (boycott Boxing Day Sales). I think virtually everything should close for at least the last two weeks of December. Maybe food-and-essentials-type shops could open one day a week. There are obviously some things that can’t close – hospitals, care homes, fire stations, and so on. But the people who work there should get the same time off at some other time. Rotas should be organised so people have to work Christmas as infrequently as possible.
I also think there’s something else Christmassy worth preserving. The values. Or at very least, the potential to encourage compassionate, humanitarian, pro-social behaviour.
I’m an atheist, and so have very little interest in the religious bits of Christmas. But the reason I’m not completely against the Jesus stuff is because he’s the most famous person in human history, and, if you interpret the story right, he’s a communist. The earliest Christians lived communally – in societies organised on the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. Goods were collected and distributed to those in need on an organised, daily basis. It was a radical, formalised generosity.
I think Christmas should honour that sort of thing. In my one, people would use some of their bumper festive holiday to help people – visit elderly people with no relatives, work at soup kitchens, give food to people struggling to get by. In fact, no-one would be hungry and alone unless they wanted to be. We’d take over hotels to house the people who’d spend Christmas on the streets, or wouldn’t see anyone for weeks. And everyone could take a day or two out to work there, making food and keeping people company. It would only be a start, of course. But perhaps in time what’s become the most capitalistic of festivities could lay the foundations of a very different sort of society.
Some very ropey pie-in-the-sky thinking about radical Christmas for you, anyway. Enjoy the really existing one.