view from here

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Some people laughed when the storms demolished Bristol's Christmas decorations. They were hideous. I don't mean the tiny white ones that cascade down Park Street like a waterfall, nor the motley collection in the Gloucester Road, but those great big ugly blobs with the baby face of Les Miserables on. They shouted out from on high - it's Christmas you've got to go to the theatre, go round the shops, buy more presents, spend more money... Another "festive season" is over now, but where did the vacation go?

What most academics want to do in the holidays is work. I mean real work. Not marking essays, not attending meetings, not even preparing lectures; I mean writing papers and books, and thinking and reading - all those things that made us want to be academics in the first place. And did we?

True Christians who actually want to celebrate the birth of Christ are few and far between, and nearly everyone who doesn't have little kids claims to hate Christmas. Yet we can't get away from it. In the last lecture of term I drew a holly leaf and a robin for my "Psychology of Consciousness" students. Every time you see one of these, I said, you are to ask yourself "What is consciousness?". They moaned. And not because my robin redbreast looked more like a squashed skunk, but because they knew that "I never saw one" will not be an acceptable excuse next term,

So why do we send out all those Christmas cards, hang up the ones that arrive in the post, decorate our houses, and spend a fortune on a poor spruce tree, a dead turkey and all those presents no one needs, while complaining it's a waste of time and money and we don't believe in it anyway?

The answer lies in the memes.

Memes are defined (yes, they recently got into the OED and have an official definition) as self-replicating elements of culture, passed on by imitation. So they include everything you know that originally came from someone else, words, stories, ways of doing things, habits and fashions, theories and beliefs.

I suppose Jesus really was a man, but the story of his miraculous birth is a meme, and so is your favourite Christmas carol, the recipe for bread sauce, the habit of sending Christmas cards (whether you are a Christian or not), and those pictures of holly and robins. From the memetics point of view, the interesting question is why the memes of Christmas are so successful at colonising all our brains and making us keep on spreading them.

Like all religions, Christianity uses clever meme tricks to get into millions of minds and stay there, like those untestable threats of hell and promises of heaven, or the good works that make us think kindly of the faith, in spite of all its martyrdoms and wars. But Christmas nowadays is hardly about Christianity. No, the Christmas memes have latched on to what we need most in the midst of winter; a celebration, an excuse to down all that mulled wine and fend off the damp and cold with an excess of sticky food. And once the present-giving gets started it is hard to stop, because our evolved nature ensures that we just have to reciprocate - or even try to give more than we get. On the back of all this the memes do very well - and as planes fly faster and further and the post, fax, telephone, and internet send our messages quicker, the memes do better and better. Holly and robins are packing the memosphere whether we like it or not,

One night just before Christmas, I made my way home contemplating my status as a slave of the memes. I could blame the Christmas spirit - either that or the more common sort - for my excess of friendliness in the taxi queue. "Where have you been then?" asked the man behind me. "Oh I've been discussing philosophy," I said. "What's that about then?. "Er... well, the meaning of life, and do we survive death, and do we have free will? Do you think we have free will?" He said he didn't know and didn't care, but his girlfriend did. "I think that's wonderful," she said. She thought for a minute (perhaps as inebriated as I) and added: "I don't want to think about it, but I'm glad some people do."

I was reminded of the Tibetans who, I am told, feel the mountains are empty unless there's a hermit up there, sitting for years in a cave, brought occasional food by the villagers from below. Thank you, I thought. I'm glad to be allowed - nay encouraged - to think about these things. As my taxi arrived even the decorations didn't seem so bad.

The writer is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England