In the run up to December 25th I received several requests from broadcasters to talk about Christmas, how much we spend and whether the “true meaning” gets lost in this consumer age of ours.

I was happy to contribute to the debate and add my point of view.

But the best time to analyse Christmas and its meaning is now, a few days after the event – or depending on how you look at it – still in the middle of it.  Rather than muddle matters with our self-perceptions and idealisations, look back at our Christmas behaviour and see what happened.

I believe that, here in the UK, the following generalisations will apply to most people – I could be wrong, this is a blog after all, not a piece of formal research:

  • People get together with family and friends far more frequently and for longer than at other times of the year.
  • People exchange gifts.
  • People massively over-indulge (on food, drink and sometimes gifts).

And I suspect that you would also find with reasonable frequency…

  • Some people get together with family members and argue.
  • Some people get into debt.
  • Some people go to church (and sometimes for the only time in the year).

These, it appears to me, are the things we do.  But what does it all mean and what’s the “true meaning?”

I think the whole “nativity” business can be put to one side.  In terms of human history, it’s a relatively recent traditional take on a winter feast that has been going on for much, much longer (under various religious or quasi-religious brands).  Arguably more recent debates about what is or isn’t associated with the occasion, such as the Peep Show’s “Cauliflower is NOT a Christmas tradition” are no less justifiable: each of us has our own sense of what makes the moment what it is.

It is interesting to me that some people, fortunately not me, accept family squabbling as an inevitable consequence of Christmas: they know it’s going to happen but still they forge ahead and accept it as though it is no less inevitable than hearing Slade’s Merry Christmas whilst shopping in early October.

It would appear that, for thousands of years, we have felt a need to get together in the midst of winter and indulge.  In modern-day consumer society, when going shopping can be a recreational pursuit and food is in plentiful supply all year round, it’s perhaps not surprising that consumerism reaches a frenzy.  This is the indulgence we appear to crave and we will tolerate the arguments and cantankerous relatives to get it.

The middle of Winter can be a gloomy time (in the Northern hemisphere beyond a certain latitude) and, it strikes me, that big festive occasion we currently call Christmas is a shining beacon that drags us past the shortest dark days and towards Spring. 

Therein rests, for me, the true meaning of Christmas; it’s a psychological pick me up that keeps us going.  A legacy of an age when it was needed far more than it is now (for most), but that still plays an important role in our relationship with the seasons.

All of which makes me wonder just what those people in the Southern hemisphere or closer to the equator are getting caught up in?  The answer, I suspect, can be found in this song by the incalculably brilliant Tim Minchin…

I’m not against consumerism.  Aside from providing a basis for my work, I see it as a natural phenomenon rather than something has been created maliciously.  But I do wonder if our mid-Winter celebration might transition into something else?  If so, I suspect that, given the nature of communication these days, it will be fragmentation rather than total revision to one new expression. 

My vote goes for Tim’s notion (without the sun, obviously), but so long as we all respect everyone’s right to do what they feel works for them we should all be fine.

Philip Graves

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