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WILL SELF: The true meaning of Christmas

Michael Gove is chased by an anti-Brexit Father Christmas. Photograph: Sky News/Twitter. - Credit: Archant

WILL SELF goes in search of some Christmas cheer.

Charles Dickens is credited with pretty much inventing Christmas as it’s celebrated in contemporary Britain. In the 1850s, using his journal of nascent gemütlichkeit, Household Words, Dickens pushed good cheer, holly and mistletoe, plum puddings with silver sixpences in them, jolly japes, wrap culture – and all the rest of this confected festival of the familial. His A Christmas Carol, published the previous decade, had already set up the parameters of this faintly nauseating cultural deformation. Once known as saturnalia: A midwinter rite of regeneration, in which mummery replaced flummery as the masters and mistresses were compelled to wait upon their servants – under Chuckie’s sentimental gaze this evolved from the hedge fund manager, Scrooge, being forced to subsidise the in-work-yet-impoverished Bob Cratchit, into the middle class family playing all the parts itself: Charity begins at home, after all, so why not confine traditional alms giving to immediate relatives.

Nowadays, under the influence of economic theories that celebrate consumer demand above all other desiderata, the British Christmas enacts a different kind of cultural appropriation. Early European travellers in the Pacific northwest of America were appalled by the First Nations’ practice known as potlatch, whereby the notables of the tribe affirmed their authority not by acquiring stuff – but giving it away. These huge disbursements of weapons, canoes, cooking and crafting equipment, textiles, furs and foodstuffs occurred not just intra-tribally, but also between tribes by way of dispute resolution. To the European interlopers, high on John Locke, the notion that you arrogated power through such random acts of senseless generosity was quite inadmissible: The ritualised form of redistribution was banned, allowing for the creation of real poverty that endures to this day.

The First Nations had their revenge, though – for what is our contemporary orgy of built-in obsolescence if not a kind of potlatch? Do we not spend the weeks prior to Christmas acquiring vast amounts of stuff that we then give away? True, if this stuff then remained valuable and within the domestic sphere it wouldn’t upset the parameters of consumerism – but it doesn’t. On the contrary, Christmas entails a vast ullage of just about everything – ruined food, wasted electricity, and more single-use plastic than you can shake a single-use plastic stick at. And for what? At best a little boozy comity and stoned solidarity – at worst… suicide. And that’s not forgetting the vast upsurge in methane emissions by ageing and gluttonous relatives.

Not that I want to join the long line of socialist Scrooges, prepared to trash Christmas simply on the basis that it’s a waste of cash – and nor do I subscribe to the view that it’s Yule’s hue that’s the problem, and if only the festival would somehow ‘go green’, everything would be alright. On the contrary, our current potlatch Christmas is a vital ritual – our economy was built on the sort of per annum growth rates that render such mass material disbursements picayune. Looked at this way: how can we know we’re winning – unless we’re wasting? And how can we go on believing in the earth’s limitless bounty, if we don’t fold, spindle and otherwise mutilate a goodly proportion of it?

Of course, in brave new Brexit Britain we may need to look further afield in order to culturally recalibrate our winter solstice. Some may argue that it’s time for us to import the practice of Zwarte Piet from the lowlands. This blackface travesty of a ‘Moor’ assists Saint Nicholas in distributing presents to the kiddies, much as the elves do with our own Santa. Stepping to one side an ultra-liberal turf war over whether racism is worse than disablism, we can nonetheless see a way back to the future: For is not Santa Claus himself an incarnation of Odin, whose phantasmagorical Åsgårdsreien – or ‘wild hunt’ – prefigures his aerial Amazon delivery route.

Some stout Anglo-Saxons would doubtless prefer to pursue this cultural tap root deeper underground: Back through the Norse pantheon to the pantheism of north Europe’s indigenous nomadic people, the Sámi. These reindeer herders’ propensity to quaff the urine of their beasts, who’ve fed on hallucinogenic Fly agaric mushrooms, is said by some anthropologists to be the origin of our own myth of a jolly bearded, shamanic fellow curvetting through the sky in a sleigh. True, it’s difficult to imagine much else from Sámi culture that the putative British renaissance can borrow from – Carrie Symonds would undoubtedly veto reindeer hide clothing on the grounds of its unsustainability; but getting monged off our bongs on major hallucinogens does seem to me a perfectly reasonable response to an incoming regime crazed with its own sense of power.

There’s this – and also the Sámi’s use of nappies made from the sphagnum moss that grows on the peat bogs of their hyperborean tundra fastness. Absorbent, natural, mildly antiseptic – swaddled in this stuff, they can sit out the months of darkness in their yurts, watching their ultra-high-definition televisions while complacently shitting themselves. How very, um, Dickensian.

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