Christmas? Hollow Novelty.

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. 

The End

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.

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6 Responses to Christmas? Hollow Novelty.

  1. Emily Wright says:

    true, true and true, make your own traditions. i remember many as xmas is BIG in my homeland, but one of my nicest memories was setting up the nativity scene (it was tiny and carved out of wood – 70s style) with my mother, it was my fave part of our deck the halls mission, every surface of the house inside and out decorated with holiday theme… where would those wise men go and were they getting the same vantage point as the kings to the baby J? It had to be equal even if the kings had better digs, and what about those wee sheep, they needed to nestle in to too. it was a mini stage production all right, and a tradition in the making. I suppose it was like a little dollhouse with characters and of course a story, right up any little girl’s alley.

  2. Danielle Williamson says:

    Really like this post Rod. I think you make a lot of excellent points. I was not brought up in any way with Christianity (my Mum was so anti religious education that I had to spend RE classes in the library with the Jewish kids) but we have always celebrated Christmas as a chance for family to get together. And one year my sister made a nativity scene modelling clay that survives to this day! Thinking about the stories, Myths and traditions to bring our children up with is a very worthwhile thing, particularly given all the points you mention about capitalism. I wonder if many of the seemingly well-meaning kindergartens/schools that have eradicated Christmas celebrations have thought about this….I think what is important is encouraging and developing the ability to critically evaluate these traditions/stories/ideas rather then getting rid of them and leaving it all up to the individual. Because that’s when The Man steps in……

    • rodbie says:

      I think you’re exactly right, the kind of binary oppositions that our society creates between myth/tradition and science, and between faith and doubt, push us to unhealthy and unhelpful extremes. I think that to either eradicate anything that is not of our age from our lives, or cling uncritically to ancient texts is a really dangerous thing to do. Whether we like it or not we are all products to some extent of a genetic, religious, cultural, familial and educational inheritance, and we need to try to keep all those books open. To close any of them and pretend that this removes their influence in our lives is like thinking that by deleting your mother’s mobile number you end any influence she has in your life.

      ps I think I might organise a nativity scene exhibition one year. There must be some crackers out there.

  3. mrbolano says:

    Yesterday while driving to Birkenhead Point to partake in a little post christmas sale madness the subject of people who don’t celebrate Christmas come up with Holly who is 6. The idea that there were people who didn’t give presents on Dec 25th was too much to comprehend. Why wouldn’t they? Christmas is great. Santa is the BEST! I tried to explain that many religions in the world celebrate many different things and that she just happens to live in a society that had commercialised a celebration based on Christian’s belief in the birth of Christ and that you could even see his name in Christmas etc etc. No, not getting there. I made a comparison with a character on ‘Arthur’, her favourite show who is Jewish and celebrates Hanukkah. Okay. But why no gifts on Christmas? Presents are great! The power of Santa was strong in this one. Eventually, driven to desperation in explaining the world to our bright little button (as I often am) I invented a race of people called the Nub Nubs who celebrate Nub Nub Day on June 5. A day in celebration of the goodness of Nub-ness. They didn’t give presents but they did get the whole family together for a meal and fun and games and most importantly they closed up their shops and didn’t work, took the day off. Which meant all the Christmas fans could shop there for the day. Alternatively, their shop would be open on Christmas day when all the others were closed. Okay, this she accepted, could be possible. I told her then to imagine 500 different groups of people in the world with 500 different kinds of celebrations and you would be closer to understand the how the world works. Blank. Maybe I went a little too far but I think I managed to introduce the possibility of difference. That we didn’t just live in a world that embraced Santa and Santa only. My only concerns is what is going to happen come this June when Holly announces she wants us to celebrate Nub Nub Day. Brain the size of a planet. Nothing escapes.

    Ps. Happy Festivus! (for the rest of us!)

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