I bought and decorated my first ever Christmas tree this year! Not 'first' as in my parents never got one, they did, but the first time I as an adult went and purchased my own. As you can see, it's a rather stumpy effort, but it felt like a big deal nonetheless. At 36 years of age, the purchase felt like a final admission, after long years of denial, that I am an adult, a householder, a caretaker of childhood dreams and spender of disposal income on the sustenance of my cultural heritage. What's more, it constituted a major blow to my self identity as firm grinch.
I've never been hugely into Christmas. I'm not religious, but my objection to Christmas has never been about that. I can't really remember ever having believed in Santa Claus (I can fairly confidently date an awareness that I wasn't supposed to talk to my father when he stumbled into the bedroom to deliver presents to age five ish) but I vividly remember how important it felt to let people know that I wasn't childish enough to believe in Santa Claus. So my initial resistance was presumably rooted in a need to outgrow childish innocence. Then in my adolescence it mutated smoothly into anti-consumerism. How appalled I was when my flat mates at university the first year put up decorations. Didn't they know that Santa Claus was invented by Coca Cola to promote globalisation?! I've mellowed with age, as one does, and rolled through many a festive period, happy to unite with family and eat too much, slightly more begrudging about the various obligatory reciprocities and comfortable in my firm too-cool for xmas music, too disorganised for xmas cards self. There has never been any tree-buying or decorating of Clarke territory, that's for sure.
Now that my three year old is approaching cognisance of all things......well, all things, I feel the need to consider my stance more clearly. I did briefly entertain the idea of raising my children in a no-Christmas household, but mostly as a kind of evil joke to myself (I've always said keep me away from politics, I can't be trusted with power at all). But, I ask myself, what is my problem with Christmas, actually? Can't I pick and mix the elements I like and junk the rest, much as many modern families have ditched the god in favour of the shopping?
I like the 'it's the middle of winter, lets light all the candles and eat too much' aspect of it, pagan I suppose. I like the tradition of everyone having time off work at the same time so that they can get together. I like the Christian bit about helping those less fortunate, including the lonely. And I like the bit about indulging children a bit, and having a party. I like gluhwein and panettone, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts. I like the singing, the lullabies and the general celebration of families. I like the twinkling lights and cinnamon.
I love seeing my family, they're the best, but I hate the way that a particular ideal is forced down our throats about who exactly we ought to be with on Christmas Day. I hate the way the ritual is contrived around the atomic family, and is dripping with pernicious norms about what that family ought to look like, who ought to be cooking the dinner, who ought to own the house in which it's served, that proper family from the bloody bisto adverts. I hate that the ritual is so aspirational, so laden with judgment about whose wreath is as arty as the Joneses, whose children most photogenic, whose decorations most stylish and so on. I hate that people feel under so much pressure to conform to meaningless paradigms, to produce the right dinner, to buy their kids as much as their frien ds got bought, to love their family and to be jolly, godammit. I hate that rates of suicide and domestic abuse sky rocket at Christmas because so many people feel they fall short. But most of all, I hate the shopping. I hate the idea of kids growing up with the feeling that they are entitled to be bought all sorts of pointless crap just because they want it. I hate the waste and the vulgarity of all the ugly materialism. I hate the preaching of a dichotomy between naughty and nice. I hate the weight of obligation and expectation, I hate the profits and the adverts and the queues.
I understand the value of reciprocal gift giving. But any anthropologist will tell you the best gifts are food-based. And gift exchange is meant to function as a way to strengthen social bonds, so it makes sense to give something to people you rely on......your babysitter, the office secretary, the grandparents. Your neighbours, your local needy. Your friends, I guess. But not your children, or your nieces and nephews! How did we get to a place where parents feel that gift giving is an appropriate way to let children know they are loved? Nobody benefits from it, least of all the children.
I really wish we could do away with flashy, one-up-man-ship gifts. And with bratty three year olds writing lists of what they want. And with this year's must-have toy. I wish that money wasn't spent destroying trees in order to wrap presents up. I wish we could strip the consumerism AND the Christianity out of Christmas and simply have a feast, sing some songs, feel all togethery.
So I'm not going to tell Orson that a man will come and give him presents if he is 'good'. I'm going to tell him that Santa, or 'Babbo Natale' is a man from a story, just like monsters and dragons and giants. I'm going to tell him Christmas is a time when we celebrate families by having a party. I'm going to tell him it's traditional to exchange gifts with people you love, and get him used to making something for his sister/grandparents rather than to fixate on what he wants. When he is older I intend to start dragging him round soup kitchens. He can have presents, but I'm never going to ask him what he wants, he can get what he's given, and know it's from me. I'm going to buy him stuff I would have got him anyway, stuff he needs in order to flourish.
This year he's getting a ton of books, some story cds for the car, a handful of daft toys like a rubber slug, a scooter so he can ride to preschool, and some interactive books. So I'm hardly a proper grinch. It's too much really. But he's also spent many hours making cards, biscuits and more for his loved ones. And I'm going to disabuse him of any notion he picked up at preschool that Santa will bring him presents, whether or not he has been good. As Anne-Marie Smith and Nia write in The conversation (The 'Santa lie' helps teach children to be good little consumers) this is likely to invite accusations of ruining innocence or inhibiting a child's imagination. There isn't much chance of this because a) Orson is so contrary that if I tell him Santa is only a story he will likely believe in him for life b) I'm always making up crazy rubbish like 'Where's Papa? (Who just nipped upstairs) 'The monster from the basement got him'. Kids are excellent at distinguishing fact from nonsense, so I don't think the harm in the Santa lie comes from telling an untruth. It comes from preaching mythology that is obviously in the service of an ugly rotten consumerist ideal.