The other day at work – as is the polite but often tiresome custom when working in retail – I found myself making small talk. What are you doing for Christmas this year? I asked the man who unpacks boxes and marks off stock at the back.
Just the same thing as last year!
His reply was exasperated, with the exclamation marks included, and I found myself unsure whether to feel relieved or disheartened that his response reflected the level of disinterest that I also found myself reaching. What to make of this thing called Christmas?
The question was again brought to my attention when I was on the way to the supermarket a few days later, and I found myself confronted unhappily with this:
I’m not trying to be nasty, it is nice that some effort was made, but I couldn’t help but feel an unpleasant pang of sadness at such a failed attempt at festivity. If this tree were a person it would have been on the stocks.
For, however well-meaning they may be, modern attempts to encourage a festive atmosphere at this time of year often fail – partly because traditionally Christmas trees are not supposed to look as though they have been abandoned on a busy street by someone who had something nicer to put in their living room, and partly because nobody really likes to be told to be cheerful on cue.
I suspect that, like Scrooge (who is not entirely bad after all), something of my colleagues’ frustration with Christmas was to do with the dashed expectations that are realised when Christmas turns from a childhood fancy in which everybody gets to pat a reindeer and eat cake, into yet another inconvenient chore in a busy schedule. The difference between an exciting holiday remembered from the Christmases of our childhood, and the frantic reality of the last month of the year is what leads many adults to a Scrooge-like cynicism when it comes to the Christmas cheer advertised so tediously in all those Muzak carols.
Indeed, it is often said that democracy is a euphemism for capitalism, and it is during holidays like Christmas that it can be difficult not to suspect the truth in this statement. ‘I have to do my Christmas shopping’, for many, becomes a euphemism for ‘I have to go and die now in this corner’. Others express a sense of shocked disbelief – even outrage – that the year has betrayed them so treacherously by arriving at Christmas this rapidly, without having allowed any opportunity to prepare. Just yesterday, I saw a giant billboard hovering over the Monash Freeway encouraging those who have not yet finished their Christmas shopping to consider online shopping, courtesy of Australia Post, who tell us that they ‘love delivering’, but who would also like to increase business. What we see in happy snow globes can, at times, seem a whole world away, for unfortunately in the modern world, when something becomes commercialised the ideas behind it can also become lost, and the thing that was most interesting in the first place is quietly pushed out of the way.
So, unwilling to adopt the level of harsh disapproval possessed by Ebenezer Scrooge – who pronounces at the beginning of 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’ – this year I am attempting to reconsider Christmas from a few different perspectives. Historically, Christmas has been full of weird and wonderful activities, phenomena, superstitions and games: in order to reinvigorate the next few days of daunting festivity, I have listed three of the most interesting below, to keep in mind when decorating even the most plastic of Christmas trees.
1. The origins of Christmas: the Saturnalia
Although there remains some doubt as to when Christmas was first celebrated on 25 December, there is agreement among scholars that elements of Christmas as we understand it today are descended from the Saturnalia, a Roman festival that honoured Saturn – the agricultural deity responsible for bountiful crops and sunny fields.
The Church selected 25 December because, not knowing Jesus’ actual birthday, it was canny enough to choose a time when pagans had traditionally celebrated the winter solstice.
In pagan Rome this meant the Saturnalia, a seven-day holiday starting on 17 December when all business was suspended, executions postponed and gifts exchanged. During this natalis solis invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun) slaves were given temporary freedom and were served by their masters.1
The Saturnalia is said to have been a period of unrestrained festivity, something very different to the experience of Christmas we find here, in this painfully accurate rendition of a modern Christmas by those masters of merriment, The Wombats.
During the Saturnalia, roles were reversed and social norms were overturned for a temporary period of merrymaking and revelry, in which one could experience the world through the eyes of another. Tom Hodgkinson writes about this in his book Brave Old World:
In Saturnalia, Lucian writes about the custom at parties of electing one of the assembled company temporary ‘king’. This king gives silly orders, ‘telling one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute girl and carry her three times around the room. In this sense, wearing antler horns, falling over and photocopying your naked behind at the office party is very much in the true spirit of Christmas, and the Malvolios who would sneer at such vulgar activities during the season are missing the point.2
The Saturnalia is fascinating precisely because I cannot decide whether it would have been turmoil or some kind of wonderful carnival. I myself am more of the sit-down-and-read persuasion, however, even I can see the appeal of a temporary suspension of the norm – a time in which slaves could insult their masters and be free of punishment, and in which society’s underdogs were freed from the restrictive social system they were normally obliged to follow. The closest thing that comes to mind when considering the frenzy of the Saturnalia is the modern experience of Christmas shopping. Shopping, however, leaves many feeling frustrated and hassled, and very far from liberated. Therefore, to liven up this Christmas, consider creating your own version of the Saturnalia, perhaps with a king of fools or a hired jester, or someone assigned to make merry trouble and divert any mention at the table of politics or the weather into a jest about the cat.
If, however, the Saturnalia is too chaotic, consider this tale about the origins of a popular Christmas ritual for another lesson in how to deal with the frustration that comes with Christmas preparations:
Early Germanic tribes [celebrated] the winter solstice by butchering slaves and male animals and hanging them (or parts of them) on the branches of trees, thus anticipating the Christmas tree ornaments of today. At the beginning of the 18th century, St Boniface (actually an Englishman named Winfrid) went to Germany to covert the pagan tribes there. According to legend, one day he came upon a group about to slaughter a child to adorn an oak tree in honour of the god Donner. Enraged, he chopped it down (or, alternatively, knocked it down with a single punch), only to have a pine tree spring from its roots, which he took to be a sign from God. Along with Christianising the Germans, St Boniface urged them to continue the ritual embellishment of trees at Christmas, but with fruit and nuts rather than body parts and to use cone-shaped pine trees because their triangular shape represented the Trinity.3
Because many modern Christmas celebrations can feel vapid, meaningless and over-commercialised, and because trees made of tinsel can be terribly depressing things for the soul, we should be eager to remember St Boniface, who, calm and unruffled, offers a valuable lesson about how to manage our frustration at Christmas: when one is feeling irritated by the alienating nature of the modern Christmas, and perhaps wants to smash something down in a rage, follow the lead of St Boniface and direct your anger at something that actually needs smashing. Perhaps a branch that has been blocking your driveway for some time, or perhaps that old broken chair that you keep tripping over at the front door. Productive smashing may liven up Christmas when it is done with the elegance of a saint.
2. Christmas superstitions
Another way in which we might resurrect some of the appeal that has evaporated from modern Christmas celebrations is to re-enact some ancient superstitions – such as this one, popular from the 17th to the 19th century. I believe this one would be the most richly re-enacted in the interior of a busy shopping centre, right in the middle of peak Christmas shopping time. You may, of course, have to substitute a pear tree for a plastic one (they seem to grow best in shopping centres), or if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can bring your own pear tree with you.
Walk backward to a pear tree and around it three times on Christmas Eve to see the spirit or image of a future husband.4
If anyone should ask what you are doing, inform them simply that you are nobly re-injecting some life into Christmas, and then perhaps give their shopping bag a dirty look. After all, the bursting shopping bag and the suffocating shopping centre come Christmas time are painful reminders of how even festivities with the most interesting origins can become unpleasant when appropriated too deeply into the commercial world. If this, however, is too difficult, perhaps leave a colander on your doorstep in memory of this Christmas superstition, designed to combat the capricious Kallikantzaroi from ruining Christmas and, well, destroying the world:
Re-enacting this one comes with the added bonus of being able to tell people that you are not being weird, with your colander-vigil, you are actually, saving the world and that, if they really believe in the Christmas spirit they should abandon the overheated family discussion inside and join you on the doorstep.
3. It’s beginning to look a lot like Krampus…
The final Christmas mythology I would like to mention is Die Krampus. If what I have mentioned so far seems all a bit too light hearted, and you have heard one too many jingle bells and seen one too many adverts for the holiday spirit which you are just not feeling, then perhaps you should consider doing some research into this folkloric figure. It may not make you merry, but it may reinvigorate your perception of Christmas once again, as something that is actually worth considering. If you’ve just got no Christmas spirit in your bones, then the Krampus is for you.
The Krampus originates from the Alpine counties, most notably Austria, where he is said to accompany St. Nicholas as he rewards good children with presents, and leaves naughty children to be punished by the Krampus. Or, if they have been really terrible, St. Nicholas leaves them to be carried off in a basket to be eaten by the Krampus, which apparently elicits only a mild amount of interest from siblings and other nearby members of the family;
There is some debate as to whether the Krampus predates Christianity and has his origins in pagan mythologies, for he does bear some resemblance to a faun. Albeit one gone horribly, irretrievably, feral. I personally believe that he crawled up from a cold dark crack, deep within the subterranean bowels of the earth when he heard that nobody had invited him to decorate the tree. He since appears to have remained ever-bitter, and harboured a hatred of festivity at this time of the year.There is however, one thing for which I must thank the Krampus, for there is something very interesting to be learnt from his terrifying figure.
When one is confronted with the images that appear after even the most cursory Google image search for ‘the krampus’, one finds oneself feeling inadvertently protective of Christmas, and of small children hanging baubles off trees and making merry in the snow. Even when the carols in the street have all become too much and one wants to disappear into the house and never hear any mention of Christmas again, one need only look to the Krampus to see that there is actually something worth valuing at this time of year. From here one realises that some attachment to Christmas from childhood must remain, even if it has nearly been destroyed by the hustle and bustle and general stress that comes with its preparation in the 21st century. When one considers the savage delight with which the Krampus ruins Christmas, even the smallest spark of outrage can be cultivated into a new appreciation of the festive season, and a willingness to be appreciative about something come the 25th December. Whether it is the uncomfortable family dinner or merely the opportunity to learn about how this occasion is celebrated in different parts of the world, there is definitely a lot of room for enthusiasm at Christmas. Oddly, perhaps the Krampus has the most to teach us about Christmas, even as he tries to destroy it by hogging all the fruit and stealing all the children.
So with that in mind, Merry Christmas to those reading, and may you stay safe from the Krampus and his scorn this season!
Further resources for enlivening Christmas:
Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Christmas – Perhaps try one of his recipes this year? Even if disaster ensues, it is sure to be a memorable event.
Tales From the Green Valley Episode 4 – see what Christmas was like in the 17th century when this group of archaeologists and historians recreate it according to primary sources from the time.
1 Carrick and Marsh, A Leap Year of Great Stories from History for every day of the Year (UK: Icon Books Ltd, 2007), pp. 577-578.
2 Hodgkinson, Brave Old World (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 249.
3 Carrick and Marsh, A Leap Year of Great Stories from History for every day of the Year (UK: Icon Books Ltd, 2007), pp. 577-578.
4 Murrell, Superstitions (London: Reader’s Digest, 2008) p. 56.