Sunday, December 23, 2007
Away with the dog in the manger
'Tis the season of the anguished op ed and blog post either bewailing the commercialism of Christmas or, to my mind more interestingly, asking the question 'What does an atheist do for Christmas?'
Some of us non-Christians devote a certain amount of thought to this question every year, for it needs to be negotiated annually by any citizen of any Christmas-celebrating country who has any kind of inner life at all. One feels the ache in one's feet as one stands at the stove stirring the custard with one's late mother's favourite wooden spoon and waiting patiently for it to thicken, or sits motionless through three changes of traffic lights in the CBD on Christmas Eve, or shuts the door against some neighbour's full-volume CD of some twelve-year-old pop star doing violence to one's favourite carols with that horrible melismatic yowling the young call singing (you can see I'm feeling my age today, can't you) -- and one thinks Hmm: why, exactly -- given that I am not now nor have I ever been any kind of Christian -- am I doing this?
Most religious people understand religious festivals, so I think those who argue that Christmas alienates people from other cultures and/or religions are kind of missing the point. I'm guessing that one reason people complain about being obliged to observe Christmas (apart from feet, custard etc, as above) is that most of us like to think of ourselves -- our selves -- as independent, self-made, self-determined, free and sui generis generally, but Christmas is one of those things that forces us to contemplate the vast extent to which we are, in fact, familially, socially and even nationally constructed as 'selves'.
For imagine the energy it would take and the ructions it would produce for all but the most solitary person to ignore Christmas, much less resist it. You'd disappoint your mother and make your children cry. You'd affront any friend or neighbour who dropped in with chocolates or champagne. If you went to work as per normal, the place would be locked up. If you wanted to read the paper you wouldn't be able to ignore the photos of Santa (or, as he was universally called in Australia until a few decades ago when the Americans definitively took over the world, Father Christmas).
In fact I'd go further than that and say that not only would you set yourself at odds with the family, your friends, the neighbours, the country and the entire western world (plus some of the eastern as well), but in setting yourself forcibly apart from an event so very tightly and powerfully woven into the culture, you'd do yourself internal damage as well. To go all Bah Humbug about Christmas is to alienate yourself from your own memories of childhood, which is one of the most violent things you can do to your own nature.
Habitual listeners to Radio National will know that the Book Reading a week or two back was Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I know this story very well, but I'd never heard it read before, and I was reminded anew, as if I really ever needed to be reminded, what a staggering genius Dickens really was. Never mind Tiny Tim (Dickens was at his least effective in the sentimental depiction of children), look at the brilliant metaphorical effects of the the three Spirits -- the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come -- who take Scrooge on a guided tour of his own soul, cunningly disguised as the streets of London.
Dickens saw Christmas -- at least as it's represented in this story, and certainly as he emerges from his various biographies -- as a site not only for human generosity and love to manifest themselves but also for human failings to heal themselves, and nowhere is that more perfectly expressed than in this allegorical Christmas tale. To the grim and foreboding Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Scrooge (who may be a misguided sausage with Issues, but is definitely no fool) cries chillingly "Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen."
As well he might, unless he mends his ways sharpish; the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley, suffering in the afterlife because he was a bad bastard on earth, has made sure he understands that.
While the nativity narrative does get an occasional mention, Dickens here as elsewhere is interested in Christianity mainly as a driver of human behaviour and character; in A Christmas Carol the day provides the best opportunity of the year to make other people's lives more pleasant if we can possibly manage it.
Which is why I must now go and do things with custard and mustard (not together). And a happy, peaceful Christmas to all.