331 – The Build-Up

In case you haven’t noticed–and really, how could you not?–we’re less than a month away from Christmas. On twenty-fifth of December, well, you all know what happens then. I needn’t make outlandish claims tabout the Xorlap from Planet Thrr!ng raining unobtainium upon his paeons, who’ve erected fir trees in salutation and acknowledgement of his gargantuan space penis. Even the most Cromwellian Scrooge knows what Christmas is all about.

And we’re under starter’s orders. November’s sands have yet to run out and the advent calendar has yet to bear the year’s first toothmarks, yet in Blue Peter watching households across the United Kingdom egg cartons painted silver, scraps of tinsel and wire coat-hangers are being cobbled together to form Advent Crowns, and lit to celebrate today, the first Sunday of Advent, and our first stop in the countdown towards Christmas.

As always, some people are complaining. Christmas arrives earlier every year, we’re told, and this year’s has arrived so earlier every family celebrating bought a turkey while they were still swallowing leftovers from last year’s events. Soon Christmas will be a yearlong event:  Anno Festivus, in which all TV listings are compiled into a single bumper edition of The Radio Times and consist of nothing but back-to-back repeats of Morcambe and Wise and The Wrong Trousers. Did you know that some half-witted eejits had the temerity to put up decorations forty-seven seconds before the time allotted by the Misery Council of Great Britain? They should be hanged from the mantle next to their stockings.

I’m not sure what it about Christmas that turns otherwise sensible–if slightly cynical–people into  raving glum-bergs. Okay, if you’re working in retail this year, I have every sympathy for you, and you’re quite entitled to demand a return to puritanical times. If I had to listen to Mariah Carey telling me she doesn’t want a lot for Christmas for eight hours out of every twenty-four I’d go spare, too.

For the rest of us, what does it matter if people are putting up decorations in late November rather than the following week? Is it really so upsetting having your journey home lit by windows full of festive promise? Did a fairy light kill your father, for you to be filled with such venom, such mean-spirited crankiness, such yuletide misanthropy that condemns everyone who whistles a carol or wears a coat with reindeer frolicking in the weave to death by hard stare?

Christmas is the one time of the year where I start each day in a merry frame of mind, only to have it crushed when Christmas rolls around and isolated and forlorn I start calling it a crock and writing threatening letters to Santa, who deserves a kick in the giblets for not bringing me exactly what I wanted.

You know what? I don’t care. That hairy sack marinating in his own sad juices, he’s still a month away. Maybe Christmas always ends in disappointment and bitterness, but it has to begin upbeat and fliled with wonder otherwise what’s the point?

I wonder if that’s what happened to you, dear grinch, whining that everyone else’s Christmas is out of sync with your internal calendar.

Christmas starts early in the US. The buildup officially begins the day after Thanksgiving, when Santa Claus comes to town preceded by the inflatables of the Macy’s parade (which is enough to rile anyone using the increasing commercialism of Christmas a crutch for his or her crusade against it. Remember folks, this is a day that is and for as long as we’ve been alive has been about giving and receiving presents. Even if you only found nuts and satsumas in your stocking, those were nuts and satsumas you wouldn’t have had on any other day. Coca Cola trucks or no Coca Cola trucks, giving and getting are as much the spirit of Christmas as any jolly elf or illegitimate hay child). On Thursday the big man’s pulled through New York in the biggest parade of the year; on the Friday your lights go up.

There are no rules written about this–one fellow ex-pat had the sense and forethought to put up his decoration earlier that week, so as to not have to tussle with fairy light tangles while still bloated with turkey–but as a rule of thumb it’s a good one. Some houses already have lawns lit with angels, Santas and reindeer–including the mad old people in the dip at the end of the street, whose gardens are perpetually filled with figurines marking some seasonal event or another. Others–like ours–barely acknowledge that Christmas is around the corner.

Shop shelves are filling with Christmassy brick-a-brack, and malls seem already in the swing of things, with festive tunes belting out of every store front and headless clothes store mannequins wearing Santa caps on their stumps. A recent Macy’s catalogue featured Christmas trees designed by a sprinkling of celebrities, some of which were classic, some of which were kitsch (Chef Emeril Legasse constructed his from cooking utensils) and some of which were seemingly designed by people who’d neither seen a Christmas tree before nor ever learned how to draw. I don’t know what happened to Jessica Simpson’s tree but I’m betting it either involved a disruption in the space time continuum or a whole heap of illegal narcotics.

I think it’s quite fun as it happens: the build-up to the big day. America’s Christmas holidays end with a resounding clang the day after the fact. There are no Boxing Day, Christmas weekend, extended time off work or any of that malarkey: it starts early and it ends flat, the second the twenty-fifth becomes the twenty-sixth. The only evidence anything magical went down are the children still milling about–off school and not knowing what to do with themselves.

Yet they cram the same amount of celebration into a slightly different time slot. Our month of celebration begins with the opening of the first door on the advent calendar, and ends with the new year. The darkly haunting–and very British–Christmas of my youth is countered by the candy-striped gingerbread Christmas of my later years, and while I can easily choose between them I know it’s nostalgia colouring my choice. In preparation I’ve been looking at websites for homemade Christmases; with the promise of pine needle, orange, cinnamon, peppermint and sugar cookie smells wafting through the air, the only thing standing in the way of a traditional, magical Christmas is whether I can be bothered to get making and baking,

Surely it’s worth taking a month out of the year to bask in a billion children’s belief in a jolly fat man, and the way it’s changed the world? Whether you follow its religious connotations or celebrate some other, similarly positioned holiday, our collective mid-winter festival is something to be admired, not mocked. Even in Australia, where wildfires break out and the sun bakes beaches to glass, they swap Christmas cards with images of snow and snowmen, robins on frosty twigs, dark nights with bright stars, and sing In the Deep Midwinter totally sober. If winter is a state of mind then we all need a little light in the darkness.

So I ask you, sneering naysayer, not to hate Christmas this year. Maybe it’s creeping too far forward. Maybe it’s overly commercialized and cringeworthy to every right-thinking man and woman, but you remember what it’s like to feel cold, right? How it felt to look out your window and see snow–and even if you didn’t see it on the twenty-fifth, to feel it in your bones, a Jack Frost tingle leaping from scapula to scapula, and how it felt a month or more before to know that feeling would soon be warming you inside.

Remember and revel in that feeling. It might only be November but Santa Claus is coming to town.

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