Thursday 28 November 2019

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. You can say that again, albeit you’d be about a month late in saying it. The retail and hospitality trades have been trying to convince us it’s Christmas since early November at least, and in many cases much longer, and by the time we get to next weekend, and into December, our nation will be in full-on festive mode.

Our towns centres are already awash with Christmas lights, as high street traders seek to make the most of the first unrestricted Christmas in three years, and counteract the ever-growing threat of online retailers; our garden centres have all been transformed into “winter wonderlands” since early November, with barely a trace of a plant or a bag of potting compost until you’ve made it through the dazzling displays of lights and baubles and the animated Santas; and the airwaves and playlists will from December 1st, if not before, be dominated by the well-loved works of Slade, Wizzard, The Pogues, Chris Rea, Mariah Carey et al.

There's now a well established yet unofficial convention that December equals Christmas, certainly in terms of decorations and radio playlists - due, I think, to the ubiquity of Advent Calendars, which were relatively rare and chocolate free in my 1960s childhood, then the norm for any household with children since around 1980, but these days used by all ages, often featuring not just chocolates but other edible treats too. 

So for many, December 1st means Christmas has started. And yet… isn’t Christmas just because it's December. Christmas starts on December 25th and lasts until January 6th. This past Sunday was Advent Sunday, traditionally the start of a season of preparation and penitence, of restraint and reflection, ahead of the midwinter feast.

An Advent Wreath

Please don’t get me wrong or dismiss me as a religious zealot or killjoy: I love Christmas, not despite but because of its secular tackiness, cheesiness, over-indulgence, and excesses. It’s a treat for all of us at a time of the year which can seem very gloomy, but like all treats, it’s a treat because it’s rare and time-limited. I love Roy Wood’s I wish it could be Christmas every day but that sentiment is so very wrong. If it was always Christmas, it wouldn’t be special, wouldn’t be a treat and wouldn’t be fun.

Now of course in reality, we can’t pretend Christmas isn’t coming. If we are going to enjoy Christmas, we obviously need to celebrate and enjoy many aspects of it in the weeks leading up to it. Buying presents, sending cards, putting up decorations, planning menus, enjoying concerts, events and parties with our friends and colleagues is all part of Christmas, and clearly can’t be done on or after the 25th. 

But do we have to completely overlook the notion of a season of preparation, of Advent? The practice of a period of preparation and abstinence in advance of a joyful feast is common to many other religions, most notably in Islam, with Ramadan followed by Eid. 

Preparation, abstinence and reflection followed by celebration and indulgence is, surely, good for the soul. Or to put it another way, celebration and indulgence without some measure of restraint and context in advance of it is surely not good for the soul.

As a society, we have become very bad at waiting for anything, at any form of delayed gratification, and I plead as guilty as anyone to this. Fast Food, seven-day opening, same-day delivery and Amazon Prime mean that many of us have forgotten what it means to wait for anything. I grew up in the days of “allow 28 days for delivery”, which now seems like a joke. Who would wait 28 days for anything these days?

Yet waiting is, surely, good for us at times. A bit of imposed patience never did anyone any harm. It’s a given of good parenting not to give in to childrens’ every “I want”, not to indulge their every wish, for fear of spoiling them, yet we as adults perhaps don’t practise what we preach. We want it now? We get it tomorrow, thanks to Amazon Prime and some hard-pressed van driver. Convenient, yes, but seldom vital.

Religion has taught us to believe some pretty daft stuff over the years, and to an extent it still does. Christianity has a lot to answer for in terms of its being misused as an excuse for bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. Which is why I have always chosen to follow my religion at a safe distance, shamelessly taking the bits I agree with and rejecting those with which I disagree. And one of the bits of Christianity which I most appreciate is the way it gives a pattern and a rhythm to our lives which is so in tune with the patterns and rhythms of nature itself, if that doesn’t sound too flaky. By hijacking pre-Christian, pagan midwinter celebrations, Christianity taps into our need for some light and cheerfulness, “in the bleak midwinter”, and by encouraging us to wait patiently for the fun and festivity, rather than jumping the gun, it taps into a bit of useful psychology and self-discipline.

So instead of joining Noddy Holder in shouting “It’s Christmassss!” on December 1st, I would suggest that it’s more fun, and better for us, to enjoy Advent for what it is? 

Yes, I have already put up some decorations, but I always start with a few, advent-themed ones - just a few candle bridges in windows, an advent wreath with candles and an advent calendar - but I’ll leave other decorations until later in December. Yes, I will listen to seasonal music, but I’ll start with my Advent Playlist (click those words for the Spotify Link), which contains some simply wonderful and oft-neglected sacred music and hymns, plus, as is my wont, some secular songs that fit the season.

Then when Christmas finally comes, I’ll enjoy all 12 days of it, and I'll be saying "It's Christmas" until January 6th, when much of the secular world will have long since moved on and started eating Creme Eggs.

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