I walked into one of the shops at Angel the other day to find the floor space cluttered with big boxes and the staff moving about busily among them: the Christmas stock had arrived. Over the next few days, the ordinary stock was removed from the shelves or pushed to less prominent positions and the shop became a Christmas emporium. Since then, this scene has been repeated in all other shops, each according to its style and merchandise. Christmas is a-coming and the goose is getting fat.
It is fashionable these days to treat Christmas as a chore, to grumble about all the shopping, the planning of meals and presents, the get-togethers with family you don’t get on with, the expense, etc etc. On the other hand, the religious lobby moans that it has become a commercial festivity and that “we have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas”. Cynics and atheists call for a complete secularization of Christmas or for its abandonment altogether. You are left wondering what has happened to Chrismas Cheer and all the fun associated with it.
Religious people are fond of asking – rhetorically, of course – what all the over-indulgence has to do with the birth of Jesus. The answer is nothing. When Christians lay claim to Christmas, they ought to have a little humility (that humility enjoined on them by Jesus but often strangely lacking) and recall that Christmas is not just for Christians. It is in fact a far more ancient festivity and one that has, or would have if pursued in the right frame of mind, great therapeutic value.
When the Christians started getting to big for their boots and ordering the rest of us around, the church cannily sought to do away with pagan festivals by replacing them with Christian ones. In particular, Christmas was brought in to replace the winter festival. This deceitful plan was only partially successful because people went on remembering what they used to celebrate and made a fair attempt to go on doing so, as yule logs, “Christmas” trees, fires and lights, feasting and merrymaking, remind us.
Every culture discovers the value of letting its hair down once in a while. This is expressed through a festival in which the normal rules of society are relaxed and when fun and over-indulgence become acceptable. Some such festivities are highly organized and others much less so, but the general principle remains the same: the population cuts loose for a while, lets off steam and discharges the tensions caused by self-control and good behaviour that have built up over the year. Christmas, or Yuletide as it should be, is our festival of therapeutic over-indulgence and this should be celebrated, not frowned upon.
Calling the festival “Christmas” does of course beg the question. We have a long and lazy tradition in Britain of not getting rid of things that not longer serve any useful purpose, whether this is a rusty old car in the back yard, an arcane law that is never applied but remains on the statute book or, as here, a name that is chronically out of harmony with the real meaning of the festival to which it is applied. I think we should petition the government to abolish the use of the word Christmas and replace it with some other more appropriate term such as Yuletide or Winter Festival. Then each of us could celebrate it in his or her own way.
Such a petition has no chance of succeeding, of course. Our government is far too cosy with the religious lobby to do any such thing. But it would at least bring the subject to public notice and perhaps start a general movement to secularize Yuletide and take it back from those who stole it and tried to impose their own religious meanings on it for the rest of us.