Midwinter

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A long time ago, before education ruined me, I used to love Christmas. I loved the trappings of the holiday as perhaps only a child growing up in the tropics can love them: the snowy landscapes of greeting cards; the fireplaces and twinkly yellow lights glowing in the December dark of favourite books and films; the carols on my family’s Bing Crosby and Jim Reeves records; the Christmas pudding and fruit cake my Aunty Edith made; the whole comforting Englishness of it, at once familiar and exotic, reliable and exciting.

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But education forces you to confront the reasons for which you love the things you do. Thus it was that as soon as I encountered postcolonial theory, I had to question my fondness for Christmas pudding, grey weather, and cluttered Victorian rooms. It’s generally true that the more you analyse your taste for a poem or a food or a piece of music, the less you are able to lose yourself in it. That the joy of true discovery becomes rare after childhood is a cliché, but fewer talk about the bliss of an untutored appetite past childhood. We tell ourselves that the more we learn about literature or music or ourselves or our histories, the better we’ll be able to appreciate the nuances of these things. This is of course true; I’m not trying to romanticise an uneducated state here. I know I’m lucky to have had the education I’ve had, and most of the time I value what it’s brought into my life, but sometimes — when I can’t switch off my analytical brain while listening to the Moonlight Sonata, or reading Agatha Christie, or eating a Bourbon Cream — I do think about what was lost in the process.

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Christmas is one of those times: on an intellectual level I resist every aspect of the holiday. I’m only one link in a long, variegated chain of people who have pointed out the indefensible absurdity of Christ’s Mass: Jesus was not born anywhere near the winter solstice; Jesus never asked his disciples to celebrate his birth; Jesus’s birth had nothing to do with evergreen trees, holly, mistletoe, snow, or gift-giving, all of which came to be associated with the holiday through the church’s ham-fisted attempts to co-opt pagan winter festivals. Christmas was banned in Reformation England, then forbidden by the Puritans and the Plymouth Brethren. In Peter Carey’s wondrous novel, Oscar and Lucinda, Oscar’s father — a devout member of the Brethren church — flies into a rage over the clandestine making of a Christmas pudding under his roof. Long before I ever read Oscar and Lucinda, one of my uncles, happening to listen closely to the lyrics of Jim Reeves’s hit, railed against its unrelenting nonsense: “What? Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ? The boy child’s name was Jesus Christ, is it? And what now, what is this? He was born on Christmas Day? Is that so? And man shall live for ever more because of Christmas Day, it seems. Because of Christmas Day!”

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I was ten or eleven years old when I bore delighted witness to this rant, but at the time I still believed in God, still called myself a Catholic. I saw the validity of my uncle’s objections, but as historically inaccurate as Christmas might be, it was still a symbol of God’s love. Now, my faith a thing of the past, I have to look for other ways to bring light into the midwinter darkness. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with celebrating Christmas shorn of its religious meaning: we could (and do) still put up a tree, make gingerbread men, buy presents, just as families across Europe and North America do solely for cultural reasons. But it’s not just the religious layer of Christmas I resist; it’s also the hegemony of Christmas over other winter festivals, the pervasiveness of its symbols and trappings, the impossibility of escaping Christmas no matter where you go in the world. Why should children all over the world recognise Santa and his reindeer — why should I have grown up seeing angel-topped trees and holly wreaths in every hotel and department store in Ipoh in the 1980s — when it is perfectly possible, even today, to grow up in Glasgow or Chicago without the faintest idea of what a diya is, or a sufganiyah, or tang yuan?

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No need to answer that question — thanks to my education, it’s rhetorical. I ask it only to convey the resentment that gets in the way of my celebrating, truly celebrating, even a non-religious Christmas. Added to all this my memories of spending Christmas as a guest in other people’s houses, the foreign student rescued from the empty dorms to sit awkwardly through hours of unwrapping. No holiday more clearly divides family members from outsiders: yours is the small courtesy gift of socks or a Santa mug, theirs the towers of gifts so tall that lists must be written of who gave whom what because the recipients can’t be expected to remember. It’s not that you actually covet all those gifts; no, the most painful challenge is managing to convey your lack of envy, arranging your face in a smile that you can maintain for the three or more hours that gift-unwrapping sometimes takes, a smile to reassure the family that they needn’t pity you or torture themselves with guilt.

It doesn’t take having been a non-family Christmas guest in someone else’s home to be discomfited by all the forced gift-giving, of course; it’s become mainstream to deplore the commercialism of Christmas, the piles of plastic toys with which the children are bored by Boxing Day; the mountains of wrapping destined for the bin. The sight of a post-Christmas living room gives many people the same slight sensation of physical illness it gives me. It’s the undisguised evidence of excess, of trying to buy happiness, of the fleeting pleasure of acquisition. Sometimes you do hit upon the one gift that is exactly right for someone you love, and that, I will concede, is truly magical for both the giver and the recipient, but why should finding such a gift be anything but a rare pleasure? Why should one be expected to find such gifts for everyone “on their list” on a yearly basis, and not just on a yearly basis but in that narrow window dictated to us by Big Business? The gift that declares how well you know someone is worth giving at any time of year; the gift that says I hardly know you, so I had to get you this scented candle/pair of socks/bottle of lotion because I could not cross the chore of Christmas shopping off my list until I’d done so should simply never be given. The giver doesn’t need the chore, the recipient doesn’t need the gift, and the planet doesn’t need the mindless consumption.

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Before I had children I was happy mostly to ignore the entire season, perhaps making a pot of mulled wine here and there, making a Christmas pudding one year because I felt like it, reluctantly buying gifts when it seemed expected of me. But something about having small people in my life has pushed me to look for family traditions we can keep happily, without feeling like hypocrites. I find myself researching solstice traditions and Yule, wondering what — like the Church — I can co-opt for my own ends. No to the animal sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood with sacrificial twigs; yes to the feasting, the gathering around fires, the reverence for the Earth’s natural cycle. So it was that this year on Solstice night we drank mulled wine, lit candles and read The Tomten aloud with our two small girls. So it was that on Christmas morning we exchanged a small number of gifts, none of which were from Santa. So it will be that I will teach them about Odin and Freyr and the Modra, about Lakshmi and Vishnu, about Mary and her boy child (who was not named Jesus Christ), about St. Nicholas in his many incarnations, because all of these tales are equally true, which is to say that none of them are factually true, but all of them seek to fill the same human needs at this dark, hungry time of year.


Images: Winter Solstice by Kimberly Ruble and Ian Bloom in www.guardianlv.com; Dickens Village at night by Kevin Dooley on www.indytheatrehabit.com; English ale-soaked Christmas pudding by Karen Thomas in The Telegraph; Christmas Tree Wallpaper on fanpop.com; Malaysia Kuala Lumpur Pavilion Shopping Centre, December 25th 2010 (stock photo)

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