The grouchy guide to Christmas

by gabeatkinson / 13 December, 2012
"Christmas is a time when people who have nothing in common gather to celebrate something none of them believe in", writes Noel O'Hare in this 1990 article from our archive.
THE LISTENER, December 24, 1990, #2649, p18

Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas. Complaining about the expense, the rush, the tawdry commercialism has become as much a part of the Christmas ritual as decorating the Taiwanese tree and filling the trolley in the bottle store. But where would we be without Christmas? Painful and uncomfortable it may be, but it relieves the constipation of the soul. Man (and presumably woman too), said Aldous Huxley, has "a deep festal impulse".


For all sorts of reasons, Christmas seems like an entirely inappropriate festival. There's no way Santa Claus, for instance, would be lauded if he were a contemporary figure. Parents would be deeply suspicious of him; his file would be tapped into the Wanganui computer. "Claus, Santa aka Father Christmas aka Nicholas. Old man, unmarried, of Eastern European origin, probably Turkish. Dresses bizarrely to attract young children. Affects a hearty but mirthless laugh. Fond of putting children on his knee and offering all sorts of inducements to be 'good'. No known offences - yet."

The saccharine version of Santa originates in the US, where they have a college for department-store Santas. Student Santas are warned, "Don't fall asleep on the job," and "Never accept money from a parent in front of a child." They graduate with a BSC (Bachelor of Santa Clausing). But in some countries Santa is less benign. In France, for instance, Père Noël has an offsider called Père Fouettard, loosely translated as Father Whip, who keeps track of children's behaviour and bestows gifts only on the good girls and boys.

Some parents might favour a revival of the German tradition. "In Germany until recently," says Lloyd Demause in The History of Childhood, "there would appear in shops before Christmas stacks of stick brooms tied in the middle, and making a stiff brush at both ends. These were used to beat childen. During the first week of December, adults would dress up in terrifying costumes and pretend to be a messenger of Christ called the Pelznickel, who would punish children and tell them if they would get Christmas presents or not."

There is, or was, a dark side to Christmas that we hear little about. Behind the benevolent St Nicholas, there lurks another ancient old man of Christmas. He is said to be an impersonation of Saturn, who ate his own children, and is closely allied to Baal-Hammon, a ram-horned male god to whom children were sacrificed. The tradition of spending your December lunch-hours elbowing others in the search for prezzies may originate in the Saturnalian custom of exchanging gifts of little dolls, possibly emblems of human sacrifice. Somehow it seems entirely appropriate that Christmas is associated with human sacrifice. Heavy festive food in the middle of summer carries overtones of some occult ritual - an inversion of the norm - rather than a natural celebration.


Though it's a slight improvement on the boar's head of previous ages, the turkey now seems out of place. Naked and massive in the roasting dish, it looks obscene and unhealthy to our health-conscious eyes, the type of bird that might have died of a coronary and maybe did. Once described as having "a dry fibrous flavour reminiscent of a plate of warmed-up plaster of Paris and horse hair", its carcass is deposited in the back of the fridge along with the sweating ham, after being dished up in everything  from sandwiches to curry. "Behind every turkey," says British writer Jilly Cooper, "there's a knackered housewife," and that must be even more the case here when the temperature , hopefully, is in the high 20s. Little wonder that many have abandoned the turkey in the interests of harmonious marital relations.

Sadly, the Christmas pudding, the calorific equivalent of an atomic warhead, is also in danger of being ditched. This dessert, which leaves Black Forest gateau for dead in its appeal to those who only really enjoy their food heavily spiced with guilt, has been defamed. According to a study by pharmacologist F A Allen, the pudding has its merits. The mixed spices are very useful for expelling wind and preventing vomiting, a vital utility on Christmas Day, and the tumeric stimulates the gall bladder. It is the suet, says Allen, with a solidifying point of 38 degrees, that secures the succulent viscosity "on the dynamic boundary between solid and liquid states in the buccal cavity" - much as the demon barber Sweeney Todd's pies of human meat were found to be so suety succulent at 38 degrees.

That other diet-buster, the fruit cake, looks like being a survivor. The fruit cake, it's been said, is the only food durable enough to become a family heirloom. Virtually imperishable, it will withstand earthquakes and floods. If the family can't be persuaded to touch it, it can be stored and brought out as a donation to the next school fair.

The fact that our Christmas falls right in the middle of the fat-shedding season denies many the simple pleasure, enjoyed by Christmas observers in the Northern Hemisphere, of making pigs of themselves. Fat reverses the usual Murphy's law that things are always easier to take off than they are to put back on again. In winter, the residue left by all those mince pies, canapes and cold and hot meats in delicious rich sauces, washed down by wines and gin and tonics, can be concealed under designer knitwear. In summer, bellies hang over belts and bra straps cut swathes in fleshy backs.

Even for those who manage to withstand the temptations of food, there's another ordeal to be faced: the family Christmas. Christmas is a time when people who have nothing in common gather to celebrate something none of them believe in. Keeping track of who is now living with whom, and what can be said to one family member but not repeated to another, is difficult with a mind grossly impaired by Riccadonna. Strangers are customarily polite to one another; relatives, even second cousins, reserve the right to speak without restraint because it's all in the family. Boyfriends, girlfriends, new husbands, wives, step-children, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters all don paper hats and eye one another warily over the festive fare.

By late afternoon, bloated and hot and headachey, they are spoiling for a fight. Uncle Eddie, in a vile mood because he's been given a tyre-pressure gauge and a pair of garden secateurs instead of the traditional bottle of Black Label, advises his nephew that it's time he got off his bloody arse and stopped bludging off the taxpayer. Sue is livid at the way her brother, the fatcat lawyer, is patronising her Maori boyfriend. Little is different among the children. Outside, quarrels break out like bushfires, are dampened down and re-ignite. Blood may be thicker than water but it also makes a bigger mess.


Christmas gifts would add some excitement to the day if we didn't know from experience that they seldom live up to our expectations. What can this be? we wonder hopefully as we pull off the wrapping and stifle a sigh of resignation, if not disappointment, that once again our friends have failed to appreciate the uniqueness of our personality. Open some presents and the sentiment is almost audible: "Well, that's him/her sewn up!" Others are evidence of a totally defeated imagination: socks, undies, aftershave, perfume, bath salts and talcum powder. Someone should set up sock and toiletry redemption centres where such gifts could be exchanged for useful things like Blitzem slug pellets and wire-wool pot scourers.

Only the very young and innocent, of course, are under the illusion that Christmas gifts have anything to do with affection. Sociologists have long known that gift-giving is about power and influence. Buying a $100 gift for someone who you know is only going to spend $20 on you is an expensive but sure fire way of embarrassing them and spoiling their Christmas. Gift-wrapping a non-stick frying pan for your wife, who scrimped on the housekeeping all year to buy you a CD player, will guarantee a divorce, no questions asked. But power does not lie simply with the giver. The recipient who only half unwraps the present, before putting it aside and saying, "It's the thought that counts, isn't it?", has played this little game before.

Christmas cards are another opportunity to subvert the season of goodwill. Sending a nice doggy card to an aunt who's recently been savaged by a rottweiler will bring it all flooding back. The size of the Christmas card should also be considered. British newspaper columnist William Connor once observed that "Important people - and people who think they are important - send big and important-looking Christmas cards. This makes the recipient feel small - which is precisely what is intended. Expensive Christmas cards can be deadly too, for they are usually fired off by expensive people to make their victims feel cheap. This is often quite costly but worth it."

Some people take Christmas cards very seriously indeed. They turn up at the post office at lunchtime with a whole armful to be sorted into different postal zones of the world. Just as the counter clerk finishes his or her calculations, they whip a variety of small parcels out of their bag with an apologetic smile. For the same reason that Christmas cards always fuse at 10.14pm on Christmas Eve, these people are always just ahead of you in the queue. They're probably the same people who surreptitiously tot up their neighbours' cards when invited around for Christmas drinks, and who are not above putting up last year's cards just to swell the numbers on their own mantelpiece.

Sooner or later, most people will get a Christmas card from those who you thought had become, as the Argentinians put it, "the Disappeared". Be warned. These people, who will have had several more whingeing offspring since the last time they made contact, will soon be staying at a motor camp near you. You are part of a contingency plan to occupy wet days. All such cards should be returned marked in red felt pen: "Not Known at This Address". With Christmas cards, it's better to have a lot or none at all. A handful will be a reminder of how few people care about you, and getting just one can be devastating, especially if it's from the Blood Transfusion Service. There's no disguising the fact that they're only after one thing: your blood. Then, to add insult to injury, they throw out an impossible challenge: "BRING A FRIEND".

With their scenes of stage coaches battling snow blizzards, ruddy-faced yeoman with lanterns, mufflered ice, mufflered toddlers and mufflered snowmen with carrot noses, Christmas cards only emphasise the incongruity of the festival here. They also point to the fact that it is no longer widely regarded as a religious festival. Cards of the Madonna (the saint not the singer) can often be hard to come by. But, though it's sometimes assumed that Jesus, Mary and Joseph started the whole snowball rolling when they failed to reserve a room in Bethlehem on December 24, a mid-winter festival had been celebrated for thousands of years before the Christian Church hijacked it.

Now there are signs that New Zealanders are starting to revive the ancient pagan tradition of celebrating the winter solstice - in winter. All over the country groups are getting together in June to have a proper pagan pig-out. It's something the churches should encourage. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Christian festival of Christmas and the pagan celebration of the winter solstice are hopelessly interwoven. Here, there's a chance to separate them and give Christmas back to the Christians.

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