More than ever this year I find friends planning to go abroad for Christmas, some to countries such as India where the sun shines and Christmas is barely celebrated at all. I can see why. The goodwill and good cheer that the festival is intended to foster is all too often outweighed by the stress and anxiety it causes. This has been the case for years, but it gets worse with the passage of time. More couples divorce, more families break up, and Christmas tends not to heal such wounds but to aggravate them.
The preparations for Christmas are more than joyless; they are soul-destroying. Try visiting Oxford Street at this time of year; or rather, don’t. There is frenzy in the air, and it can’t be attributed to philanthropy. The people fighting in department stores on Black Friday were not, I think, looking for nice presents for their children, but were being driven by some kind of mindless greed. It was, as George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in the Mail on Sunday, without ‘context’, just an orgy of acquisition, gratuitously whipped up by the retail industry.
Black Friday, Dr Carey said, ‘is of a piece with the reverence we now collectively show for the seasonal advertising campaigns — the TV commercials by Marks & Spencer and John Lewis for example — whose arrival we seem to anticipate with bated breath’. With the original purpose of Christmas now widely forgotten, new festive symbols, such as TV commercials, have had to be invented. Christmas has become like Winston Churchill’s rejected pudding; it has no theme.
Jesus Christ is no longer what Christmas is mainly about. A poll has found that only 20 per cent of the British population will be attending church this Christmas, and many of these will be people who never normally go to church at all. Of the young, only a minority now declare themselves believers. Soon it will be a minority of everyone. There is no halt to Christianity’s decline.
But even the main folkloric symbol of Christmas, Santa Claus, is losing ground. Santa Claus may be a name based on the historic 4th-century Saint Nicholas of Myra, reputedly a compulsive gift-giver, but in his modern portly incarnation, with his sleigh and his reindeer, there is nothing religious about him.
I doubt if there are many children over five who really believe in him, though I except that there are lots who still pretend to, so as to squeeze as many presents as possible out of their parents. But it was reported even ten years ago that British children were beginning to turn against Santa Claus, whom they associated with smelly, drink-sodden old men sitting in plastic grottoes in department stores. The more recent panic about paedophilia can only have made parents more wary of letting children nestle upon their knees.
In 2005 Santa’s leading impersonators held an emergency meeting at Alton Towers in Staffordshire to discuss the decline in their business. They took all the blame for their troubles. They were too often rude and loutish and drunk, they agreed. Children recoiled from them. More and more department stores rejected them. So they drew up a code of conduct covering such things as personal hygiene and alcohol consumption, but also setting rules about their appearance so that they would look more like each other and fool children more easily. I don’t know to what extent the code has been obeyed, but in one matter it hasn’t been. Concerned that Santas were often too thin to inspire confidence, they decreed that they should be generally fatter. As it has turned out, according to press reports, they have been growing thinner.
So now, without Jesus and with less Santa, what does Christmas mostly consist of? Food, drink, presents, television and searching for bargains on the internet. It is also imbued with nostalgia for Christmases past, the focus of this changing with the passage of time. We used to look back wistfully to when Christmas was celebrated as a religious festival. Then we looked back to a time when television programmes were more decorous and commercialism less frantic. Soon, maybe, we will be thinking of the old days of jolly old Santa Claus. But there seems no doubt that Christmas will survive, though in quite what form it is hard to know.
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