Christmas, a “shallow celebration”?

HERE’S A RESEARCH question – is Christmas more enjoyed in the north than in the south?

In today’s column in Fairfax papers, Wendy Squires argues that any seasonal fun is spoiled by commercialism, family conflict and an ensuing “festive funk”.

That is an increasingly common view, and I sense a growing demand for a Christmas rethink.

The disaster seems too big for my suggested survival tactic of a Champagne anti-party.

Drawing attention to an additional post-Christmas funk, Squires’ column forced me to theorise further, and to suppose the clear benefits of a mid-winter Christmas over our present “shallow celebration”.

Australians have long enjoyed the “joke” that baked turkey and plum pudding are as unseasonal as Santa Claus’s thick coat and tinselly store Muzak. Historian K.S. Inglis pointed to the colonists’ tradition “to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it”.

Gastronomically, however, more has to be said.

Forget the birth of Jesus, and not merely because of falling church attendances.

Historians have difficulty estimating his birth year, let alone precise date. The choice of 25 December under Emperor Constantine borrowed the mid-winter festival, presumably because the beginning of the year would be appropriate for the beginning of Christianity, too.

Christianity’s local languor has left it too like a sentimental, Dickensian festival. Concentrating on family fun is triply two-edged. Firstly, which family? One practical solution has been for a couple to join one partner’s family for lunch and the other’s for dinner or the next day.

Secondly, it’s for the children, they say. But that should be year-round. Besides, Squires points to parents who just “spent the holidays aching for children in the custody of exes”.

Thirdly, as she reports, happy snaps of elderly relatives and wide-hatted kids on the beach are more than matched by negative stories – this year, one of her mates had a seemingly irreparable falling out with his brother, and a girlfriend’s “strained marriage” finally snapped.

To family woes Squires adds the “general malaise”. Falling into a festive funk, she tends “to ponder what I haven’t, rather than embrace what I have”. She laments another year passing, and flagellates herself for what she didn’t achieve.

And worst of all I make that terrible and oh so common mistake of thinking everyone else’s life is better than mine.

People then return with their holiday stories – about broken families, and about noticing “the empty chair of a lost loved one” – and she realises that “many of those happy snaps I envied should have been captioned ‘help!’”

Squires recommends accepting the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering”. I prefer the formulation in my dear friend Suzie’s long-term email signature, which I suspect she restored especially for the season:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~ Philo of Alexandria

My love for Brillat-Savarin rivals M.F.K. Fisher’s, and is helped by him tackling such downers as The end of the world”, which is “Meditation 10″ in Physiology of Taste.

In “Meditation 14”, Brillat-Savarin argues dolefully that table-pleasure compensates for hunger, thirst, and pain. He asserts:

Humanity is incontestably, among the sentient beings that populate the globe, that which is inflicted with the most suffering.

His evidence is people’s unprotected bodies, poorly shaped feet, inclination to war and destruction, and a mass of maladies such as gout, toothache, acute rheumatism and strangury. In his view, the fear of all the pain pushes people to give themselves up to the “small number of pleasures which nature has allotted”.

My suspicion is that contemplative festivity works better when it’s cold, and meals are made from thinning flocks and from fruit preserved in puddings. Christmas thinking is helped by the faint cheer of carols and baubles, attempting to keep close for warmth, and the prospect, however distant, of fresh shoots.

Our Christmas made more sense a year ago in Germany when cantatas and Christkindlmärkte seemed to challenge the cold and dark.

Even and, indeed, especially in a secular state, Christmas ought to arouse what the Christian emperor wanted, new beginnings. New Year’s Eve is beaten hands down by Christmas’s gift-giving, family reunions, intense commercialism, and whatever remains of religious thought.

But we need renewal in the right season. Those Antipodeans who move to a “Christmas in July” are on the right track, trying hard to get even colder and more drab than with a six-month shift to June.

We should not have to mourn among young bodies dashing into the surf. Daylight saving was not introduced to serve melancholy. A world flowing with white peaches, raspberries and, further north, mangoes provides pure pleasure, leaving scant room for reflection.

Plum pudding at a jolly Australian Christmas, 1875

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