As Christmas shopping rears its ugly head, Tara Hepburn tells us why the modern Christmas is still beautiful
Whilst working last Christmas I was subjected to a tirade by a woman who saw the increasing popularity of the spelling “Xmas” in place of “Christmas”, as responsible for near enough everything that was wrong with modern festive celebrations. It is, as she so helpfully pointed out, Jesus’ birthday after all, so he probably should get a name-check in the title. Annoying as this woman was, I never liked Xmas much either.
Not from a religious perspective, mainly because it encourages people to pronounce it “Ecks-mas”, which sounds ridiculous and stupid. And whilst this season does seem to conspire to make the ridiculous a little more sublime, stupidity remains as annoying as ever.
There is, however, something finicky and indulgent about Xmas being the worst of your worries at Christmas-time. Whilst modern Christmases are perhaps commercialised and unreligious, there’s little evidence to suggest that the whole celebration was even Jesus’ gig in the first place.
The pagans knew how to throw a Christmas shindig thousands of years before Mary had even met Joseph. Apart from gathering en masse – as opposed to in Mass – there are very few differences between the way the pagan’s rocked their winter festivities and the way that Christmas exists in modern form.
Similarly, a number of winter’s other big festivals, such as Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Yule and the Winter Solstice show a familiar fandom for gift-giving, lights, decorations, and generally staying ensconced in your warm home with your family, eating well and drinking better.
There’s no real genius required to figure out why such a wide-reaching habit might begin to form. Without the terribly exciting promise of Christmas, we might all come to realise that winter’s actually pretty rubbish. It’s cold, and dark, and the trees look skeletal and creepy, and we have to bundle up in clothes that are both not-enough for outdoor climes, and far-too-much for the tropical climes enforced by shops.
It’s a sick enough joke when snow falls in January or February, with little respect for the arbitrary dates assigned for merrymaking, but a sparse Scottish winter without anticipation of Christmas whatsoever would be utterly unthinkable.
There does seem something sad, however, about shirking all the holy connotations whatsoever. Unless you actively bat for some other God’s team (which I haven’t the faith or favouritism to do — I love them all equally), the religious agenda certainly adds a bit of gravitas to things. The nativity story is — overlooking all its Inaccurate Conception worries — a poignant and important narrative which seems universally and eternally relevant.
In a Jeremy Kyle climate, it’s easy to believe that children are more ill-gotten than begotten, surplus weapons in the petty wars of the stupid. It helps that this one’s a messiah, of course, but there’s something refreshing and really rather beautiful about celebrating birth in general.
Secular grumblings aside, the Nativity story succeeds in embroiling all sorts of magnificent sentiments: of hope, and love, and harmony, and interdependence.
It isn’t particularly important to the splendour of the story that this manger-cosy lad grows up to be Jesus Christ, to assume so seems to somehow miss a significant part of the whole tale. It remains a wonderful account of the meaning of the future, and children, and how important it is to love them, and help them, and provide for them, and let them be brilliant. He could end up working in Sainsbury’s for all that it matters, but with his love-heavy beginnings he’ll probably be the kindest, most helpful, charming trolley boy you’ve ever met. Though, it might be easier to fathom miracles of the biblical variety.
And, contrary to popular belief, the worst thing about Christmas is not that it highlights a godforsaken culture, where you get elbowed unapologetically when out shopping, rather; it’s tragic in being so shamelessly widespread and steeped in memories. This Christmas, as every other, will be a terrible, painful burden to people who’ve lost someone, for whom the whole shebang will be a cruel reminder of a life that seems almost gone to them now.
If the hope and faith of the Nativity, or the Church, can provide some solace in a horribly poignant time, then it would take a monster to deem it all irrelevant.
And whilst it is a pity if people can’t see these wider merits of the Nativity Story, it hardly represents much of a departure from the values it puts forth. Festive favourite “It’s a Wonderful Life” succeeds in tapping into all such Christmas rudiments with moving acuteness – providing a cars-instead-of-camels version of the Nativity story for the modern world.
Perhaps Church turnout is poor, but with heathen souls all over the country tuning into George Baillie’s tale of hardship and triumph, I wouldn’t write them off just yet. It seems that people very much do care about the kind of suffering that this time might inflict and — more importantly — about the idea that unity and hope always exist amongst the darkness.
However commercial the whole circus has become, people really do spend time with their families and think about others at Christmas-time. Retailers, obviously, benefit from the whole caper, but charities too raise a far larger percentage of their annual donations at this time of year than any season. Even if merely the remnants of Christian traditions remain, the heart of their intentions beats strong. It shouldn’t really matter if people do good things because it’s God’s kid’s birthday or not.
They’re being good for goodness’ sake. Which is perhaps more valuable anyway.