Now, I realise that this is not strictly a book-related post – hence my vague Dr Seuss reference. Consider this me branching out a little, one small step at a time.
I wanted to discuss something that I’ve discovered since I’ve been in the UK. Something I wasn’t quite expecting. It has to do with sleigh bells and turkey and Michael Bublé.
Yes, like the famous Dr Seuss character, I have found my heart growing two sizes (metaphorically, of course, or else I’d be having some far from jolly health complications) and embracing the spirit of Christmas. And I think it perhaps has quite a lot to do with setting, with the weather and general atmosphere of Edinburgh in early December.
I’ve always been rather ambivalent about Christmas. Like so many people, once the greedy glow of childhood present-related joys began to evaporate, I started wondering what all the fuss was about. I began disliking the crass commercialism of the whole enterprise. And since I come from a family of open-minded atheists (at least we like to think we’re open-minded; but then again everyone thinks they’re open-minded when they’re always surrounded by people who think the exact same way that they do) I began to feel a bit uncomfortable at how a Christian (well, Christian mixed with a healthy dose of pagan ritual) holiday had become so entrenched in secular society.
Of course, anybody in my family will be quick to tell you that Christmas isn’t about any of this for us – Christmas is about family, about being with the people you love. Which is all well and good, but for the past year or two one or other of us has always been away, so a family-oriented Christmas has always been, for the most part, impossible. And yes, this year it’s my fault.
Our Australian Christmas ritual was never anything elaborate – late starts and long breakfasts, followed usually by a whole lot more food; stubbornly keeping to tradition, we persisted in cooking the kind of hearty Eastern European meals that would usually have been given to people before they went out into the freezing cold to transport heavy livestock across snowy fields. Sometimes we’d go swimming. That was pretty much it. No elaborate decorations, no chestnuts or mulled wine or singing (unless one of us decided to break out the hearty Eastern European brandy).
And of course it was lovely. But it wasn’t ‘Christmas’; at least, not the way we’d understood it to be based on American movies or Love Actually. It didn’t feel like a massive, grand occasion; it was just the four of us, with our close family friends, doing what we’ve always done best, which is eat, drink, and talk endlessly. We didn’t necessarily need a special day to do that.
But this year has been different. Usually the appearance of Christmas-themed advertisements and decorations in stores fills me with irritation and exhaustion. The underlying message – it’s December! Quick, everyone go absolutely bonkers! – always annoyed me, even more so when I was working in retail and came very close, a few times in my life, to literally being trampled to death by last-minute Christmas shoppers.
But Christmas in the UK is so very different. It’s all mice pies and Christmas sweaters and cute little markets selling handicrafts. Even the things that are the same as in Australia – Michael Bublé’s inescapable Christmas album playing everywhere, for instance (seriously, what did people play at Christmas before Bublé? Did we all sit around banging tin cans together? I swear I can’t remember) – don’t seem to irk me as much as they used to. And even though we’ve yet to see snow here in Edinburgh (thank goodness!) the chilly wind just makes you want to sit inside bundled up in blankets drinking tea and chatting away with someone, or reading a book, or building a pillow fort (because pillow forts are the best).
The prospect of long winter nights clearly makes people want to come together. And since moving away from home, I understand why Christmas is such a big family occasion; it never seemed that important to me, because I spent the day with the same people I saw every day, every week. And my family is fairly good at expressing our affection for one another without the necessity of a few pints of mulled wine or a large cherry brandy. So I never realised just how important these ‘family occasions’ could be.
Distance has a habit of bringing out these kinds of realisations in us. And it’s with the benefit of these realisations that I’m preparing to go and see my extended family in Europe over the Christmas period. Living so far away from home has made me appreciate just how important chances to come together can be. And perhaps how important it is to make sure that it’s not just a yearly occurrence, prompted by a heavily commercialised holiday.
Maybe we need a Christmas with more universal appeal. Maybe we could rename it ‘December Day’. Or ‘Gathering Day’. Although ‘Gathering Day’ sounds more like something out of The Hunger Games, so maybe not that one.
So no matter your faith, or how many snowflake jumpers you own, or your personal opinions on Frosty the Snowman (mine: cute story, irritatingly catchy song), I hope you all have have the chance to be with the people you care about this week.
Happy December Day, everyone!
What are your holiday traditions? Have they changed as you’ve grown up?