It’s the 24th December. Sunrise, here at 52° North, was at 8.05 and sunset will be at 15.55. Sorry, Christians, but that’s what Christmas is about. It might be different in South Africa or Australia, or even in California and Florida, but here in Britain, this is very obviously the sad and sorry time of the year. More than two thirds of the day are in darkness, with the sun abysmally low at noon and a good chance of lowering clouds and pouring rain to cut down the light even further. What do we have to look forward to in the coming weeks, but ice, snow, chill, rheumatism, transport snarl-ups and misery. So it goes without saying that Christmas, conveniently parked next to the Winter solstice, is the one ‘Christian’ festival that a secular society has clung to, for reasons that have nothing to do with official religion.
Just as we have clung to the need for bonfires and fireworks to mark the onset of the dark, without really giving a toss about 17th century terrorists trying to blow up Parliament, so we stick to an instinctive need to celebrate wildly and illogically in the very heart of darkness. We want singing and noise, we want feasting and drunkenness, to cheer us up and, most of all, we want reassurance that this isn’t the onset of the end but a turning point, that from here on, the days are going to start getting just that little bit longer. We want light: candles, and fairy lights on the Christmas tree if we no longer have the yule log blazing. We want families, to reassure us that we belong somewhere, even if we finish up snarling at each other.
Most of all, we want tradition. We want ritual, the same thing, year after year, the same ritual food, even the sprouts that nobody likes and pudding that everyone is too stuffed to tackle. We want the same songs, the choir boy singing Once in Royal, the same Slade and Bing. We want to watch infants perform the same nativity plays really badly, and the same… well, things haven’t quite been the same since the loss of Morecombe and Wise, but there’s always the Midsomer Murders Christmas special. It has to be the same, because then we know that it’s all one big cycle. It comes around and it goes around. The light will come back, the days will be once again be long and warm and sunny. Never mind that warm sunny days are as much a myth as snowy Christmases, it’s the thought that counts. The carefully nurtured illusion.
We need Christmas when it is, how it is, because we’ve still got to get through January. The mysterious birth of a baby fits beautifully with our need for the notion of new beginnings, just as the vulgarity, the frantic shopping and the absurdly extravagant spending on unwanted gifts and pointless frills, fit with the lord of misrule in us all that is itching to come out and defy this full stop of the year. We need to turn everything upside down, like we did last year and we will insist on doing next year. I suppose even the inevitable sermons decrying our irreligious consumerism and imploring us to remember ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ is a part of the ritual we couldn’t possibly do without. Bring it on.