United we fall over
At the time of writing, the preachers are cranking up about the True Meaning of Christmas and, this year, the True Meaning of the Millennium. As is invariably the case when people start telling you the True Meaning of things, they are telling lies, and whether or not they believe their own untruths is neither here nor there nor anywhere else in saecula saeculorum. We celebrate the Millennium in the same spirit, and for exactly the same reasons, as every now and then I marvel at the almost imperceptible click when the date changes on my wristwatch: a glimpse of precision at work. I like to think of the tiny Jaeger le Coultre movement beating away inside its antimagnetic soft iron case; a horological litany jingles in my head: verge-and-foliot, ruby bearing, pallet arbor, going train, cylinder, escapement, roller, tourbillon; the accretion of knowledge, the miraculous precision of mensuration, the sense of keeping time, the sense of making sense.
So with the Millennium. The date is as arbitrary as a six-tooth scape wheel, and just as effective. It keeps track. It comes round with a click, with shouting and laughing and Auld Lang Syne. Nothing has changed, but we persuade ourselves that there is order and significance, and that we can measure and understand it. Click. See? The universe isn't so strange, so unfriendly, so unfathomable after all. For a moment, it makes sense.
To argue about what we are actually marking - whether it's this year or next year, Gregorian or Julian, this second or that second - is inane, because we are not actually marking anything, except the fact that several billion of us have all agreed to mark the same thing at the same time. Not much of an achievement - most of us have no choice - but an achievement all the same, and worth a nod and a glass of Clicquot before plunging the face into cold water and getting back to non- millennial things: sex and dinner and fending off the creditors, finding someone to love, keeping the roof over our heads, getting the bad news from the doctor, finding our other spectacles, meeting the deadlines, coming up with a new excuse... All those daily tasks where it's all tooth and claw and every man for himself. As the biggest of the measurable imaginary planetary wheels clicks over once again, we can stand for a moment in silent complicity and say: "Look what we have done."
Complicity. And it's true of Christmas, too. Not much of a religious festival, when you think of it, not without the prolepsis lurking among the carols and huge food, and there aren't many of us now who project forward from yesterday to Easter up ahead, which is the only thing that makes it significant. But that's not why we do it. Scratch Christmas and you find Saturnalia, a respite of complicity where the laws do not run. Never mind the baby Jesus; when I was five I got a Biro in my stocking, with yellow ink, and outside the bedroom window snow fell on the quiet street and the dripping sandstone eminence of Castle Hill beyond; six, and I got measles and a football; seven, there was A Christmas Carol in my stocking, which I set (to myself) in my grandfather's big dark old house; eight, rollerskates; at 4.30 in the morning I strapped them on and skated along the landing, into the lavatory, where, to save my balance, I pulled the cistern off the wall and awoke my parents to an icy inundation and screams.
And everyone else was doing it too. Today, Boxing Day, was when, as teenagers, we all emerged from the familial bomb-shelters back into the real world, lighting new cigarettes with new Ronson Varaflame lighters and wearing new polo-necked jumpers, to meet girls in new angora sweaters smelling of new Ma Griffe. Everyone else was doing it too - which is why birthdays never really counted, not in the same way - everyone ate the turkey, everyone fought with their mother, everyone opened their presents, everyone wondered whether Grandpa was dead in his armchair, everyone felt queasy at teatime but ate more anyway, everyone by bedtime was faintly resentful, wondering what all the fuss was about and what to do now.
Complicity. Hodie Christus natus est is no more than an excuse, just as football is an excuse to gather a crowd. The True Meaning of Christmas is the same as the True Meaning of the Millennium: that the truth doesn't matter as long as everyone agrees to believe the same tall story, whether it's the Incarnation or the universe clicking over like a wristwatch. And if I can pull it off, then so can you. Click. See: wasn't so hard, was it?
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