Some stories demand attention. Any writer can find them – or rather, they find him, eagerly salivating little gangs that pounce each time he opens his laptop and switches on. Headlines, oddities, issues that invite comment, or exercise a turn of phrase. Stories that beg to be told.
So here I am, staring at the keys.
Christmas stares back at me.
Christmas makes it abundantly clear: it does not beg to be told. All it wants is to be put back in its box. Its greatest hope is to be left in peace. Over the centuries it has been written about incessantly; it has been turned over, forensically examined, boiled down and put into test tubes, sculpted by the greatest, depicted by the painty-est (yes, I know it’s a new word – I just invented it) and sung without mercy.
There is nothing about Christmas we do not already know.
We know that St. Nicholas began a legend when (allegendly – another new one, do you like it?) he dropped bags of money down the chimneys of a deceased friend’s daughters to save them from penury. We know the first Christmas trees were religious symbols Eastern European people hung upside-down from their ceilings (or medieval equivalent) as appeasement to evil spirits, just as ‘decking the halls with holly’ dates back to days when the dark woods were never far from our doors, and we needed to be sure our friendly sprites and fairies would feel at home when the party started.
We are aware our celebrations are intrinsically pagan, and early Christians hung their own festival of Christ’s Mass upon them for convenience, because it was easier to get converts if they didn’t try to impose additional celebrations on people whose winter resources were limited. They understood even then that Jesus was not born on December 25th: they argued about His actual birthday from the very beginning.
So where is the new angle? What startling revelation can I bring?
I have seated Christmas on my window sill, hoping a little cold air will wake it up. It just stares at me, blankly. Beyond the glass, Washington Irving’s rotund red fellow ho-ho-ho’s at me before fading away; heading back, presumably, to his inhospitable den at the North Pole. How the hell does he cover Australia in midsummer from there and still get home before dawn? Albert and Vicky smile regally from their cardboard portrait, the first Christmas card, before disappearing into an envelope to be despatched by a postal service that hasn’t been invented yet, making me wonder – was it an ill-advised penchant for adorning our Christmas trees with lighted candles that stimulated creation of a national fire service?
“No.” Christmas assures me. “Insurance companies created the first organised fire brigades. Nicholas Burbon initiated one after the Great Fire of London to protect properties he insured. The first organised municipal brigade was probably Edinburgh’s, in 1824.” It squirms in a weak attempt at enthusiasm. “That’s something new for you!”
“But nothing to do with Christmas.”
“Oh, well then.” It appears to be dropping off to sleep. I give it a prod.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, WHAT?”
“I want a new angle.”
“There isn’t any.”
“Just something – anything – a bit different?”
It tucks its chin into its chest, adopting the shrivelled appearance it always has just before twelfth night, when nearly all its needles have dropped off. “Snow.” It mutters.
Snow, of course, is the great enemy in Eastern Europe’s icy winter heart. The Germanic peoples of history knew all about snow – the white blast that drove them to huddle within their huts, sealed up and buried, for the winter of the year. It was an enforced hibernation, a somnolent wait for the coming of spring, and a habit as old as time.
Equal in tradition was Yule (the Nordic houl), the time of the hunt. It began once the harvest was gathered in, and, just like the harvest, it culminated in a great feast – the feast of Yule. Carcasses kept frozen by frost could be stored, so as to provision the months of incarceration. Given a good hunting season, whatever was left over was consumed in feasting, sending celebrants to their hovels with full stomachs and hopeful hearts.
The Yule Festival – kept more formally by the Romans as ‘Saturnalia’, equally an occasion for seven days of self-indulgence – had added significance, for peoples of early times, as the winter solstice; important for those who relied so heavily upon the mood of the sun, and therefore a religious occasion: of course, wherever there was a religious occasion the witches could be expected to put in an appearance, so it was a time of superstition and fear, too.
Perhaps it was that weak underbelly of terror that the Christians, four hundred years after the time when Christ is said to have lived, latched onto in the spread of their gentler creed; but it took all that time before Yule could be reborn as Christmas.
So there’s my angle. It isn’t really new, and I’m sure you knew it already, but I thought I should just remind you that whenever someone laments Christmas’s ‘commercialism’, and insists upon the ‘true message’ of Christmas, it is you who has the moral high ground. It is the time of the solstice and it is a feast: the Romans gave gifts at Saturnalia, and so should you.
Christmas looks at me archly. “Can I go back in my box, now?”
“Yes, of course. Until next year, at least. Oh, and thank you for ‘snow’.”