It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas…
I am feeling VERY Christmassy. To be honest with you, I have been restraining myself from writing a festive piece for the last few weeks. I can generally hold it in until at least the sixteenth or so of December, but I really have been feeling ridiculously Christmassy for some time now and I think I might actually burst.
Christmas is probably the time at which my homesick sentimentality reaches its zenith. As my husband has been away on business for a couple of weeks, my festive feeling has been able to flourish, free and unfettered: I have decked the halls (well, the apartment) in tinsel and fairy lights; I have three advent calendars (one lovely traditional one from my mum, one chocolate one that I am saving for my husband’s return and one of Canterbury Cathedral in the snow – LOVELY); the 1940s Christmas jazz is playing, my M&S cinnamon and orange candles are burning and there are glorious baubles everywhere. My home is a veritable haven of festive whimsy.
The shops and restaurants do a wonderful job of embracing Christmas over here – there are Christmas songs, lovely lights and brightly decorated trees everywhere you go. It’s all got a commercial emphasis rather than a religious one, of course, but then it’s mostly commercial back home, too. And every year I get perplexed by the same Christmas paradox: here I am in the Middle East, where the story of Christmas actually comes from, and yet it doesn’t really feel ‘Christmassy’ to me at all. I have to create Christmas here; separated from all that I associate with this time of year, my Christmas has become a completely conscious construct. The connotations of Christmas depend, I am sure, entirely on one’s personal experiences of it. While I’ve always known that the story of the nativity took place two thousand years ago in a hot and dusty country in the Middle East, this has always remained completely abstract in my mind. When I think of Christmas, I think of dark, frosty mornings and twinkling lights; the exciting crackle of a present-filled stocking, heavy on my feet at the end of the bed; eating freshly baked mince pies by the fire; getting merry on sherry; singing carols with my mum playing the piano… The fun and kindness and mystery of it all; the cosy, jolly family-ness – and the FOOD! (My family do Christmas particularly well, it has to be said.)
But the origins of Christmas remain strangely separate from all this; what most of us really indulge in is, of course, Yule – a sort of pagan mid-winter festival. The Christian story is mixed in there – in the songs, the nativity scenes, the angel on the Christmas tree… and children seem to simply accept the strange hotch-potch of customs. We dress them as shepherds, in traditional Middle Eastern dishdashas, and listen to a story about stars and hope and peace, and then sit them on the lap of a strange man with a false beard, in a darkened room, beside a large plastic tree, surrounded by fake snow. These same small children then have to hang up a very big sock, so big that it could not possibly fit any human foot, and leave a gift of mince pies (which do not contain actual mince) for this same strange man who they are told will visit them in the middle of the night. These things would, I often think, be most bemusing to an alien of an academic disposition who was endeavouring to understand us as a species and was, perhaps, preparing some sort of dissertation.
The iconography of Christmas is such a joyous muddle of traditional Christianity, European pagan winter festivity, Victorian sentimentality, Hollywood nostalgia and commercial branding; so many antithetical ideas all jumbled up in one gigantic festive woolly stocking. A Christmas medley might contain songs about three kings from the East and Royal David’s City (who knows who Royal David was? If I sing about him every year, I really ought to find out), alongside songs about Santa, figgy pudding, winter wonderlands and unnaturally animated snowmen. Not to mention elves. When did festive elves come into it all?
So, just to clarify, here is where it all started. Not the North Pole. Or hereabouts, give or take a few hundred miles of deserts and mountains. The story begins with a census in Bethlehem: a compulsory administrative procedure for which a heavily pregnant woman had to walk some eighty or so miles, possibly (or possibly not, according to the Pope) assisted by a ‘little donkey’. Knowing Middle Eastern bureaucracy as I do now, I have to say this all sounds very much par for the course. I expect Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem only to be told that they should have gone to the typing office back in Nazareth and they would now have to fill in a new form for which they would need seven passport photos, a work visa and an attested marriage certificate. I expect their mistake would also mean that they now had to pay even more tax due to the ‘knowledge fee’ incurred by the additional administration. No wonder poor Mary went straight into labour.
Small children do sometimes get a bit confused about the story of Christmas, and it’s not surprising really. A primary school teacher friend of mine once told me that a pupil of hers had drawn a Christmas card for his parents featuring a crucified Father Christmas. Terrifying. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect a small child’s ‘festive pictures’ to include such bizarre juxtapositions as Mary and Joseph in their festive snowflake-design jumpers, kissing under the mistletoe; Good King Wenceslas making a list of who’s been naughty and nice; an inexplicably luminous-nosed reindeer pulling a sleigh filled with gold, frankincense and myrrh; the Holy Ghost and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future all happily haunting a lowly cattle shed together; three Arabic shepherds and a little drummer boy shivering in a snowy desert, roasting chestnuts over an open fire while Bing Crosby leads a host of angelic crooners ‘walking in the air’ overhead… And a partridge in a palm tree.
But I love it. All of it (except the bit where people muddle up angels and fairies. That upsets me. It’s angels that go at the top of a Christmas tree, not fairies. Fairies are an entirely different genus of supernatural winged being, for goodness sake). I love that Christmas is such a cheerful, bizarre, well-meaning muddle of clumsy good intentions, archaic tradition and commercial indulgence – a bit like me, really. Although I’m far from home and family this year, I will strive to bring my many diverse worlds of Christmas together. Today I’ll shop for Christmas presents at a local crafts market in a gaudily decorated mall; next week I’ll find a carol service to attend so I can sing my little festive heart out… And on Christmas Day, I’ll put on a festive jumper, turn the air-con up to ‘downright chilly’, put Bing and the boys on full volume, and get pleasantly merry on sherry. I can’t wait!