I had to run up to the supermarket on Saturday afternoon, having muddled up what should go into the freezer and what should go into the fridge after doing my market shop on Friday. (Excuse: I’d had a streaming cold since the start of the week.) I could hear carols floating over the allotments from one of the churches as I went up our road, and more carols floating over the green from the direction of the Square. The Christmas lights were flashing frantically, cars were circling the car park like hungry sharks, waiting to pounce on a space, and the supermarket was thronged with customers pushing overloaded trolleys stuffed with cheese dartboards and gallons of wine. Snatches of irritated conversations drifted past my ears…
“No, that was for Christmas Eve, dear. The cream is for Boxing Day!”
“Not that one, you know Jessica’s allergic to red colourants!”
“No, no, the Heston, not the Jamie!”
“Sorry, sir, we’ve sold right out of those now.”
I felt as if I’d landed on the wrong planet, not for the first time in the last few weeks. There was still more than a week to go until Christmas, but the good citizens of East Dorset are stocking up in good time, and by the looks of their trolleys they are all entertaining at least 20 people they desperately need to impress. Me, I’m just feeding 9, with mostly cooked-from-scratch-by-us food, some of it even grown-by-us. It’ll be a joint enterprise, and we’ll have a laugh as we prepare it together and try to cram 9 seats into our kitchen; the conservatory, which is much bigger, would be too cold for my 91 y.o. mother.
I’ve also had occasion to enter that great temple of Mammon, the Giant Shopping Centre in the big city 30 miles east. More flashing lights, lots of must-haves, more eye-watering prices for things that no-one needs, which might just raise a slight smile before ending up in a charity shop or possibly even the bin. Somehow it just all felt utterly surreal, absolutely divorced from any vestige of reality. No hint of midwinter magic, no connection to the Reason for the Season, not a glimmer of anything in any way genuine or personal. All that pressure to spend, spend, spend; all that glitter, no real gold.
We visited a new Scandinavian shop. There were some nice things, some of them definitely referencing genuine Scandinavian Christmas/Yule/midwinter traditions. But mostly, alas, just more plastic tat. I did buy a couple of items, one of them edible, one that will replace something that broke last year. But I can’t shake off a feeling that something underneath all this glitter and fake bonhomie and enforced generosity is terribly, horribly wrong… That this celebration really shouldn’t be all about greed, or even misplaced generosity. In all Northern Hemisphere traditions, it’s a celebration of the return of Light to the world, a promise that the darkness will be vanquished and growth will return. In the Christian tradition, a feast and a gift-giving to celebrate God’s gift to us.
I’ve been reading up about Christmas traditions all around the world. It seems that most people in most countries don’t put up their trees or decorate their houses until about the 23rd or 24th of December, which is how it was in the home I grew up in, in the dim & distant past. In many countries, the main meal & present-giving is actually on the evening of Christmas Eve, with Christmas Day being reserved for church and family visits. Boxing Day is livelier, with sport & dancing back on the menu, but still very sociable & family-based, rather than a rush to spend yet more money at the “sales”. In some countries, gift-giving doesn’t happen until Epiphany, or 6th January, tying in with the visit of the Kings to the baby Jesus, with their gifts of gold, frankincense & myrrh.
I particularly love the Icelandic idea of the jólabókaflóð, or Yule Book Flood, where everyone receives at least one book on Christmas Eve, then retires to bed with chocolate to read it. Of course, by then they’ve done the big meal and the gift-giving, but how much more relaxed & sane than my usual frantic last-minute Christmas Eve scrambles does that sound?!
I suspect we could learn a lot from countries that take a more laid-back & sociable approach to Christmas. Somehow we’ve been railroaded into the spend, spend, spend mentality & the one with the lowest credit card bill is a loser. Not a game I want to play any longer… judging by people’s anxious faces in the mall, I’m not alone.
So I think I’m going to re-think Christmas-yet-to-come (again!) and take a leaf out of other books from all over the world. We’ll start low, just with an Advent wreath at the start of the month, and build up slowly; the tree certainly can, and should, wait until 23rd at the earliest. I shall insist on at least one book all round for Christmas, too, although retiring to bed with it and a box of chocs probably isn’t practical until Boxing Day evening. It’s important to me that we don’t feel “all Christmassed out” by the 26th, as we so often have done; that there’s time for calm reflection, and there are genuine moments of holiness and sheer magic. Time to listen to the rhythms of the earth and sky, hear the birds sing and the bells ring out.
And of course, time to wish all my friends “out there” a genuinely happy and peaceful Christmas – or whatever midwinter festival speaks best to you.