“Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind” – Kris Kringle
And so we have arrived in December once again. This means the advent calendars are opening as we count down to Christmas day – or at least those Christian or Pagan amongst us do. So what can we say about Christmas? What do I think about Christmas?
Let me take you on a little journey…
Christmas – it’s just for the kids really.
This is a sentiment I hear a lot these days, and one which if anything I hear more and more as the years pass me by. It saddens me slightly. Yes, of course, the ‘magic’ of Christmas and the belief in Santa / Father Christmas etc that those 8 and under have is a truly wondrous thing. I remember my own childhood and the excitement of Christmas day, and excitement that would result in my getting up at around 4am in the morning to go and see what was ‘under the tree’. It was a magical experience. My elder brother Phil (six and a half years older than me) usually had to be my childminder for this early morning stint, but it was a role he always did well. He kept me calm whilst allowing me to have a level of genuine excitement about the whole thing. In fact later on I always kind of felt a bit sorry for my brother because he’d never had the equivalent of him to get up with him on those Christmases before I was born.
My parents would try and hold out for as long as possible but were in reality always up before 6am, knowing that I would probably explode with pent up excitement if they didn’t let me open my presents sooner rather than later. Once up, they would try and instil in me the idea of unwrapping each present not just tearing straight into each one as quickly as possible. You can probably imagine just how successful that one was during my earlier years. These days my unwrapping process can be painfully slow.
As a child this was my favourite day of the year. No question.
But is it anymore? Can it really ever be when you’re an adult and that magical innocence has gone? I think it can be, but a lot of things now work against adults holding onto that feeling from their childhoods.
Suddenly it’s Christmas
I think the main reason adults become jaded with the whole thing is that they have to put up with a couple of months of ‘pre-Christmas’ first as the shops and then the advertisers throw their festive blankets over us. In the words of the great Loudon Wainwright III
“Suddenly it’s Christmas, Right after Hallowe’en. Forget about Thanksgiving; It’s just a buffet in between.”
If only we could get as far as Halloween. These days it is not uncommon for supermarkets and card shops to start stocking their cards and wrapping paper etc in September. It is ridiculous. As far as the big push goes, Loudon is pretty much on the money. Soon as we hit November the creep of Christmas begins and by mid November you’ll probably start to hear the dulcet tones of Slade, Maria Carey, Wham, Jonah Louie, Wizard and others if you step within 100 metres of any shop. You know how much that starts to annoy you after a while? Well, if you’re annoyed just spare a thought for the shop assistants. Is it any wonder that some of them are less that welcoming and helpful as Christmas get nearer. If I had had to listen to the Christmas album on repeat for 4-6 weeks I think I’d be positively homicidal by the time Christmas arrived: I would be of the firm opinion that, No, I don’t wish it was Christmas every day; and last year you didn’t give me your heart you gave me some crap which I gave to a charity shop 3 months later.
Christmas does feel like a season. Again to Loudon:
“Suddenly it’s Christmas, The longest holiday. When they say “Season’s Greetings. They mean just what they say … It’s a season, it’s a marathon, Retail eternity…”
There is a view that the whole of Christmas has now become too commercialised. It’s a view I would agree with. You may be nodding your head too? But, is it really, or is it just that as we move from childhood to adulthood that our perceptions change?
Back 65 years ago in the 1947 film A Miracle on 34th Street Alfred (Alvin Greenman) a Macy store janitor talking with Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn ) says:
” Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it’s the same – don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.”
You see, not a lot has really changed. Our perceptions as we get older maybe do, but the reality doesn’t. The Commercialisation of Christmas is, it would seem, nothing new.
What we do have is Christmas adverts now treated like film releases, with similar (relative) budgets. The most eagerly awaited ad on British TV this year was the John Lewis Christmas Ad. It is an animated film apparently depicting a sad bear who always misses Christmas because he’s hibernating. Not to worry his friend the Hare – with whom he seem to be having an inappropriate relationship with – gives him an alarm clock as a present which wakes the bear up and he comes down to the clearer to see the decorated Christmas tree and all the woodland animals bouncing around. John Lewis spent over £7 million on this ad and the message we took from this ad was, even with Lily Allen singing it, Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know is a bland song, and that we all need to remember to buy some game before Christmas.
For those looking for something more festive and heart-warming Sainsbury’s Christmas campaign, which is a 45 minute film by director Kevin MacDonald (The last King of Scotland, How I Live Now) compiled of Christmas clips submitted by the public. This was a continuation of a theme MacDonald mined in his 2011 film Life in a day where he pieced together clip from all over the world that served as a time capsule to show what it was like to be alive on the twenty-fourth of July, 2010.
Religion and Xmas
Of course to Christians (certainly practicing ones) it is certainly NOT just about the kids. For them it is about remembered one child, they believe was born at this time long ago: you know the fellow, Jesus. Now leaving aside the fact that even most biblical scholars will concede that if Jesus did exist he was almost certainly born in what would be our summertime there is still a lot of religion in Christmas (or at least the Christian religion)
Whilst not religious myself I do think of religion at Christmas – for starters it is one of the few times you can get me in a church to participate in a service rather than merely to admire its architecture and/or stained glass. I have always loved Christmas carols: Hark the Herald Angels, Away in a Manger, Once in Royal David’s City etc.
It is no coincidence that there are new collections of these and other non-secular festive songs released on compilation albums each year. This year alone you can put your feet up in front of the fire [more realistically sit with your central heating on] and listen to new offerings from: Susan Boyle, Erasure, Kelly Clarkson, Kim Wilde , Mary J. Blige, Jewel and others singing their interpretations of some of these carols and songs – you could even listen to my own attempts – re-interpretations, if you will – if you were so inclined too. People just can’t stop themselves.
But, the point is, for some people Christmas is about Jesus.
I have to say that one of the simplest evocations to remember the birth of Christ and more importantly to just be nice to your fellow man at Christmas comes in the form of a speech given by Bishop (David Niven) in the 1947 film, The Bishop’s Wife [His speech has been re-written by Dudley (Cary Grant) a visiting Angel]
“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.
Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.
But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.
Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth.”
Religious or not the sentiment at the heart of this speech is hard to argue with: It should be a time of love and kindness.
A Very Personal Christmas – Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings
One thing that does seem common is family Christmas rituals or routines – most of us have them whether we realise it or not. When I was little I remember that one of ours used to be about breakfast which was always a half a grapefruit for starters, followed by a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. A fine start to any day quite frankly.
The cuppa and bacon sandwich bit is still an essential part of the day, although the Grapefruit has been replaced – often with Champagne. Why not start the day in style.
As a child it also meant the Perry Como Christmas album – resistance was futile. To be fair, it was hard not to like Perry (still have a soft spot for ‘Catch a Falling Star’ ) and his gentle crooning ways.
In a similar vein it also meant the Val Doonican Christmas Special. Val was a permanent fixture in the TV schedules for around twenty years until the mid 80s (as it happens the man himself is now in his own mid 80s). His love of knitwear and a rocking chair will forever be etched in my mind. It also meant the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. Remembered fondly by many, these were shows that, at their height, pulled in close to 30 million viewers.
But that was then.
Part of my own personal routine for Christmas revolves around film: Given the quotes I have already mentioned you perhaps will not be surprised to learn that in the week or so before Christmas I like to get in: The Bishop’s Wife (pun intended), A Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas. Each of these in their own way just makes me feel like Christmas is the greatest time of the year. Time permitting I will also attempt to get in a selection of: Trading Places, Scrooged, Muppet Christmas Carol, Bad Santa, The Nightmare Before Christmas, When Harry met Sally, Die Hard and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life . As Jimmy Stewart himself said, “I think, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the movie is about hope, love and friendship.”
This year, watching The Bishop’s Wife will have added poignancy following the discovery that Gladys Cooper, who appears in the film, was born just around the corner from where I shall be watching it.
The other thing that I genuinely love about this time of year is present giving. It really is better to give than receive [Well, ok, perhaps it depends on what you're receiving, as there are probably are some exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking …] Also, you do come realise that it is the thought that counts. Taking time to actually think about the ideal present for someone is … frustrating? Probably, but intimately rewarding as you have that have that flash of inspiration or see that one thing that you instinctively know is right for someone. You’d surprised how often someone’s favourite present is one that didn’t coast that much to buy, or was home made in some way. That said, if anyone want to buy me a Sonos 5.1 Play:1 Wireless Surround Sound Bundle With FREE Sonos Bridge, then that would be fine too.
My favourite moments of Christmas? Sat at night looking at the decorated tree (a real one, none of this plastic fake rubbish). The only light that from the tree lights. A nice pint of Theakston’s Old Peculiar, or a warming Zinfandal, or a good Scotch/Bourbon. Maybe some Christmas music playing. At that moment I may – as I do when I watch my trio of favourite films – get a little something in my eye as I think about how lucky I am to be sat there, when others in the world are not so lucky. And I raise a glass to friends and family no longer with us. And I remember the story my mom tells of my brother seeing father Christmas and his sleigh flying over our house when we were young. I remember the magic, I remember I love Christmas.