Well, Dawkins bless us, every one, and here it comes again – Christmas: season of cultural insecurity, financial strain and family meals involving tensions, posturing, lies and menace worthy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, sis, or even something of true historical import – like the outcome of Strictly Come Dancing.
I'm always puzzled when people react to the savage perils of Christmas with variations on a theme of wounded surprise. As far as I'm concerned, Christmas is bound to be appalling. It is, after all, the celebration of a woman giving birth without anaesthetic in a draughty cave surrounded by donkey poo. Her husband wasn't the father, so you just know he'll have been really helpful with the boiling water and towels. (Although he was a chippy, so he'd probably have string – but not clean string.) The country had been occupied by a foreign power – and now that Obama's nearly in charge we're probably allowed to admit this isn't something every civilian population really enjoys.
It's Bethlehem, it's small, it's provincial, there aren't any curtains and a heaving great star has taken up residence outside, so no one's getting any sleep – even though no crying he makes. Then the weird strangers turn up – three posh blokes and some shepherds, who bring lambs. Exactly what you'd need: more unhousetrained livestock. Plus, the flock-watchers are probably completely freaked out and babbling – "Yeah, there was this light and singing and this herd of angels... a what of angels...? A host? Really? That doesn't sound right. But OK, a host of angels. Weren't we the host of angels, though, because they were visiting us...?
"Anyhoo, they're talking about love and peace and biscuits – something like biscuits – and all this hippy stuff and we're bloody terrified and they're saying be not afraid, except in these big, boomy voices, so we're thinking maybe if we can't get relaxed, they'll just kill us and so that's making us incredibly more tense and round about then some of the sheep fainted and, I mean, it was just really messed up and crazy – we're still in a right state. Angels dropping in and monkeying with your life, you don't expect that, ' do you? Although obviously, it could be worse... could be that we'd ended up... how is the baby, anyway? Not crying – that's a blessing, eh!"
The three kings, of course, bring along the world's first rubbish Christmas presents – each one heavy on the symbolism. Frankincense would make the cave smell slightly better, but mainly has religious associations and can also be chewed like gum – possibly implying that Jesus would become something in religion, or a bit of a slacker, or make scented candles – definitely not something sensible like a carpenter. Myrrh is used in funeral rites – presumably they'd also considered offering Mary a tiny child's coffin, perhaps with some tinsel on it. I'd guess considerations of space ruled that one out: you can only get so much loaded on a camel. Then there's gold, a great big sparkly casket of gold that will ensure you'll be burgled, if not mugged while you huddle, knackered and unarmed in your vile and quite possibly front- doorless shelter.
Now does any of that suggest that Christmas wouldn't turn out to be an elf-haunted, witch-melting festival of bickering, misery and waste? I think not.
Of course, I principally associate Christmas with being – in one way or another – close to death. This began when I repeatedly witnessed the arrival of The Turkey, specially sent by train from Great Uncle Edgar's Turkey Lagoon. (Or whatever collective noun would be more appropriate.) Edgar being a generous man, the avian cadaver unloaded from the luggage compartment was, for many years, much larger than myself. The body would then rest – very much like a dead, decapitated child – in the bath as a kind of combined appetiser and threat. I already knew about the Massacre of the Innocents and was unclear whether this led to outrage and woe, or huge dinners with lots of little sausages and evil sprouts. Hideous midnight hacking – à la Jeffrey Dahmer – would ensue and then on Christmas morning the oven would be packed with flesh and only 18 or 20 hours later a selection of genetically similar strangers would be forced to stare at each other round a groaning board, while remembering, in vivid detail, why they had promised themselves last year this would never happen again. (The massive binge-eating component of Christmas is, of course, not Christian, but was imposed by the Romans as a cunning plan to eliminate the Druids through cholesterol poisoning.) A sometimes chillingly intelligent child, I quickly noticed that feigning serious illness was a good way of avoiding one's festive relatives. By the age of eight I managed to fling myself from a speeding horse as it proceeded rapidly up the wrong side of a dual carriageway. The resulting head injury allowed me to spend much of Christmas in a children's ward with a viciously illuminated Christmas tree and a number of other restlessly not-at-all-ill-enough children I would have been happy to see covered in bacon slices and served with roast potatoes. They and the apparently endless broadcasts of Perry Como singing in a golf sweater may have damaged me emotionally in a bad and wrong way.
Since then I have – like you, dear reader – realised that merry carolling, romping in snow banks, patting impish tykes, hugging and shoving satsumas into used socks are all activities which expose the immune system to unreasonable stress. Last year – as usual – I spent Christmas crawling between the sofa and my bed, unable to hear, breathe or see. In the few moments every day when I could speak, I begged for death. Sadly, no one else in the house, or my mother's village, or indeed the region was well enough to even hit me with a cracker. So I'm still here. Looking forward to Christmas. Don't say I didn't warn you.
AL Kennedy's latest novel, 'Day', won the Costa Book of the Year Award 2007Reuse content