The other day, I was shopping at Coles and I noticed these Christmas ‘items’…
… and thought a photo of same would make the perfect image for my Blog Christmas Card to you, dear reader.
You should have seen me. I was so excited to find something that appealed not only to my snobbery and my hatred for the commercialisation of Christmas, but also to my obsession with spotting unintended double meanings. I picked up Tilly (who was busy transferring fruit and nut Picnic bars into a box of ‘traditional’ Picnics) and ran to the checkout to find Susie so I could steal her iPhone, so I could take this photo. It was quite hard to get the composition right, and at the same time keep Tilly out of the frame and away from the phone. Luckily, I am such a professional that her earsplitting screams of frustrated rage didn’t put me off.
There was a moment when it occurred to me that, to someone monitoring the Coles CCTV, what I was doing might look less like a subtle combination of wit and artistry, and more like a not so subtle combination of child abuse and corporate espionage. To manage the anxiety this produced, as I continued to click away, I rehearsed (and cast) the imaginary conversation I would have with ‘the Man’ if he dared to confront me.
The Man – Steve Carell
Me – Steve Buscemi
Passing Shopper – Steve Martin
The Man: (In an annoying shouty voice) Hey! What do you think you’re doing? Planning to make some freaky, foil-wrapped elves of your own, are you?
Me: (Shouty but dignified) You can forget Satan and his Minions, man… Here are the real forces of evil, man… Santa and his Hollow, Maniacal Elves… I bet whatever actual chocolate there is in these bad boys was made from beans harvested under slave conditions by starving children, and for what, man? Well I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you, man… So that kids who are already way too fat can stumble one more chunky-thighed step down the road to diabetes.
Passing Shopper – (crazy shouty) Right on!
The passing shopper then pushes his Coke-filled trolley violently away from him and sprints the full length of the frozen food aisle, before diving headlong into the shelves of full fat milk.
Luckily, ‘the Man’ left me alone, so I put the phone in my back pocket, picked up Tilly and took her out to ride the Sesame Street mini-merry-go-round (by way of an apology).
As she sat in the stationary Oscar the Grouch Bus, I wondered to myself how long it would be until she realised that the Merry-go-round could actually… go round. And this got me thinking about all the other problematic (for me) realisations that lay ahead of her, and how Susie and I would handle them. What loomed largest – given the time of year – was the coming advent (pardon the pun) of Santa Consciousness. The reality is that this is my last year to prepare for the difficult job of counteracting the hi-jacking of Christmas by the forces of hollow novelty. It’s a terrifying thought.
Being a Jesus Freak, I’m hoping that Tilly’s love for newborns and morbid fear of fat, bearded old men will continue, but the reality is that eventually she’s going to twig that a baby can’t buy you a Barbie (whatever it says on the card) and her allegiances will shift.
You see, I have been worrying more and more about the slow disappearance of the myths and stories that used to shape Western consciousness, and about what kind of stories and consciousness will replace them. There was an article in ‘the Age’ the other day about how Atheist organisations in the U.S. are legally challenging the right of churches to put nativity scenes up in public/government spaces at Christmas. At one level, this is a totally legitimate thing to do, I’m a big fan of the separation of Church and State myself (especially when I see Christians trying to impose their view of marriage on others through legislation!), but if we wipe our culture clean of religious stories, what will replace them?
The Age article gives an illustrative example from Santa Monica, California. For many years, local churches have used 21 ‘plots’ in a local park to represent scenes from the story of Jesus’ birth. This year Atheist groups challenged the churches right to this space, and what resulted was a ballot for the plots. The Athiests won 18 spots and the churches only 2 – thus proving that there is no God (if you’re wondering what happened to the remaining spot, it went to the local Jewish community). And what did ‘American Athiests’ do with their 18 plots? They put up a single poster that simply said, ”37 Million Americans Know MYTHS When They See Them. What myths do you see?” Once again my unintended double meaning alarm goes off.
It’s a very disturbing development in our culture, that the term ‘Myth’ has become a purely pejorative, small ‘m’ term. Historically, Myths have been the wellsprings of culture. Now, obviously, it is totally legitimate to interrogate Myths, and challenge those that you consider to be dangerous. Myths always have been, after all, a double edged sword. They can be used to unify and generative life and meaning, and also be used to violently exclude and perpetuate ignorance and fear. I accept this, but at the same time I believe that you frame them wholly as superstition, and seek to dispense with them entirely, at your peril. They certainly cannot be replaced with posters and propositions (or a couple of inflammatory rhetorical questions).
For better or for worse, we are not propositional beings, we are narrative beings (or at very least we are both), and we need stories to make sense of ourselves, each other and the world around us. Take away the Myths that have shaped out identities and values, and around which we have formed our communities for millenia, and you have to replace them with other equally generative myths.
To be fair, for a long time now, people like Richard Dawkins et al (though, sadly, no longer the passionate, provocative and beautifully articulate Christopher Hitchen) have been trying to create forms of Secular Humanism and ‘Scientism’ that can replace religion and religious myths as a source for identity, ethics, art, and experiences of the ‘transcendent’ like awe and wonder. Time will tell how much traction this type of project has, and whether it is able to create, to choose one example, the experience of intimacy and belonging that religious communities, shaped around unifying Myths, have provided in the past.
In the meantime, what we seem to be left with is a cultural and ethical vacuum into which has stepped the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is contemporary bandit capitalism and its technicolour dreamcoat of sticky, anaemic sentimentality – represented in its purest (and thus most nauseating form) by Hollywood Christmas films. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love ‘Elf’, but getting adults to sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ (like they really mean it!) is hardly a recipe for cultural rejuvenation. Occupy Hollywood, I say!
Call me a wide eyed dreamer, but is it possible that one day passionate Atheists and passionate believers will stop fighting each other, and realise who the real enemy is? Will Ferrell and his shadowy corporate puppeteers!
In the meantime, I have to decide what to do with Tilly? The theory, I guess, is to tell her the Christmas story, and talk up the aspects of Christmas that I feel are valuable, rather than talking down those that I don’t, and hope that all the Christmas Muzak doesn’t drown me out. I mean, my parents let Christmas be exciting for me. And they let me believe in Santa for as long as my older brother would allow (I still remember with fondness the year Santa brought me a blue plastic gun that shot ping pong balls), and there were always gifts under the tree, and lights and tinsel. I guess I just worry about how much more kids are marketed to these days, and how much more acquisitive they seem (but I’m sure every generation of parents feels that).
Anyway, if anyone has any thoughts about how to represent Christmas to Tilly, let me know. For now, I’m just going to try to get as much joy as I can out of the last Christmas where I don’t need to rein in my grumpy misanthropy.
So Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivas to you all.