How many of us really have a merry Christmas?
Christmas is a special time of year because you get to feel everything - sorrow, pain and sometimes even a little joy, says Ian Sansom. From family traditions to false expectations, there is no escaping the trappings of the season
Christmas is unavoidable - a bit like Brexit. Even if you don't believe in it, it's still going to happen. Blame whoever you like - Eurocrats, the Germans, the early Church, the English white working class - you can't make it go away.
You can't vote it down. The people have spoken. You will be jolly. You will be merry. You will deck your halls - and your living rooms, and your kitchens, your front gardens, and, if you're a taxi driver, your car. And if you don't, you'll still have to put up with other people doing so. Like taxes, death and trouble, there's absolutely no escaping it.
Wherever you are, whatever you do, like Liam Neeson in Taken, Christmas will look for you, and it will find you. You can trek to the highest mountain, you can set sail upon the seven seas, you can don goggles, a mask and ear plugs and submerge yourself in an isolation tank in a soundproofed room far from humankind, and still, around the 25th of December you'll find yourself thinking, 'Hmm, I wonder what the people back home are doing for Christmas?' You'd have to have an operation, you'd have to have radical surgery, a festectomy, to remove it and all memories of it. And still you'd bear the scars. One year my wife and I took ourselves away to a country house hotel for Christmas, to get away from our families and our responsibilities: it was so depressing, we turned around and came right back home again. Better the Santa you know than the Santa you don't.
At Christmas, it doesn't matter if you're Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or you believe in nothing at all, like everyone else, you will know the story of the little baby, born in a manger, and the shepherds who watched their flocks by night, and the wise men guided by a star and the decree that went out from Caesar Augustus and… Well, you know the story. I don't need to tell you. Whether you believe it or not - even if you're one of those unutterably boring people at the office party who tells everyone that, like, actually it's all just a rehash of the Roman Saturnalia, and the midwinter solstice celebrations, and the cynical invention of Coca-Cola, Dickens and the military-industrial complex - the Christmas story absolutely does not care. This year, like every other year, The Christmas Story is guaranteed record box office receipts. It is a perennial worldwide bestseller. Even J.K. Rowling couldn't make this stuff up. A miraculous conception, a child born a saviour, angels, dreams, a search, a hunt, a bad guy named Herod: this is blockbuster material. Whoever came up with this - Luke, Matthew, whoever - knew exactly what they were doing. (Some people prefer their later stuff - The Easter Story - but I'm not sure. It doesn't have quite the same family appeal.)
Christmas may be, as George Bernard Shaw once remarked, an "atrocious institution", it may well be, in the words of the poet Philip Larkin, "a slavering Niagra of nonsense", and you may well agree with Scrooge in A Christmas Carol that "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart" - and yet every year we subject ourselves to its demands. Christmas haunts us. It is the annual return of the repressed, a time of half-remembered rituals and revenants.
In Angela Carter's super-creepy short story The Company of Wolves - the basis for Neil Jordan's almost-as-creepy film - Christmas Day is the werewolves' birthday, "the door of the solstice still wide enough open to let them all slink through". Don't we all have relatives like werewolves who slink through the door at this time of year? In some countries, the traditional tales of St Nicholas have him accompanied by a ragged wild man, a hermit or a devil: Old Hob, Schimmel, the Klapperbock, Habbersack, hobby, Schmutzli, Krampus. Sound familiar? Yep. It's your weird uncle. And your cousins. And your dad's friends from work.
Of course, we all like to complain about Christmas: it's not like it used to be, it's become too commercial. When we were young, Christmas was special - we used to receive a lump of coal and an orange in an old holey sock, which was more than we expected, and we were grateful, and we would entertain ourselves by playing happily with our siblings, reciting poems, singing carols around the piano, and playing cards with our beloved family, having made decorations from brown paper bags and string, before tucking into a simple celebratory meal, which we had cooked together over the blazing embers of the open fire, cracking our teeth on the old pennies concealed in our grandmother's thrice-boiled plum pudding.
The truth is, the Christmas we remember never really existed - or if it did, it existed only because we were children, and we knew no better. If we were lucky, we were protected by our parents. We didn't know about the sacrifices that they had to make, or the fact of Uncle Jimmy's alcoholism, or Auntie June's divorce. We were unaware of anything, including our own illimitable desires, so we were easy to impress. We were blissful in our ignorance. An Etch-a-Sketch was a wonder, a Slinky hours of fun. As adults, we have to cope with endless disappointments, including the realisation that the answer to all our troubles does not come wrapped in a pretty box beneath the tree. (Though can I just say, in case any of my family are reading this, a bottle of Bushmills wrapped in just about anything comes pretty close to being an answer to all of mine.)
Not only was there no Christmas like the old Christmas, there is no Christmas quite like any other Christmas. There are only Christmases: the Christmas when your mum cut herself carving the turkey and fainted and everyone just carried on eating, because that's what she would have wanted; the Christmas your brother went to his girlfriend's house on Christmas Day and got drunk and was sick and they'd split up by New Year; that first Christmas without your mum, or your dad, your brother, your sister, your husband, your wife, your best friend. "How are we going to get through Christmas?" Gina Tull asks her husband, Richard, in Martin Amis's novel The Information. The same way we always do.
Every family and every household has its own peculiar Christmas customs and traditions. "Oh, we always/never go to church." "Oh, we always open our presents before lunch/after lunch/during lunch." "Oh, we're Jewish, so we don't actually celebrate Christmas or eat pork, but we make an exception when it comes to the tree, the cards, the crackers, the presents, and the stuffing for the turkey." There is nothing quite like the horror of arriving at someone else's for Christmas and realising that they actually have mistletoe, and that you're expected to kiss their nan, or they always play Monopoly, even though everyone knows that Monopoly is a game not to be played but to have been played, ideally by someone else, or that everyone is expected to sit down and watch It's a Wonderful Life, or Miracle on 34th Street, even though it is maudlin, sentimental schmaltz and everyone would rather be watching the Strictly Christmas special.
Of course, I love Christmas as much as the next man, and hate it just as much. If I were a psychoanalyst, which, thank G*d, I'm not - imagine coping with all that pre- and post-post-Christmas angst, December's bitter tears! - I would say that Christmas excites strong feelings of ambivalence. It is a lovely family time, when we just want to be left alone. It is a time of rest and relaxation, which often leaves us sick, overhung and exhausted. It's a time of goodwill to all men, when it's difficult enough to be civil to your sister-in-law when she announces she won't be doing presents this year, after you've bought her lot all their presents, and what on earth are you expected to do now with all the smellies and the socks?
Christmas is a special time of year because at Christmas we get to feel everything. The rest of the year we can hide from ourselves and from others. But at Christmas we get to feel sorrow and pain and sadness and frustration and anger. Sometimes we might also feel a little joy and love. And that's life. I like Christmas because it's real: all the tinsel and the decorations, all the insincerities, all the awful crap and kitsch, somehow allows us to get to something genuine. There is some tiny truth tucked away there in the manger, under the star. That's why we love the Christmas story. And that's why we continue to tell Christmas stories of our own.
'December Stories I' by Ian Sansom, published by No Alibis Press, is out now, priced €9.99