We ache for a sense of community and belonging. This intense need is the only explanation of our focus on Christmas. For most, there is little or no religious significance to the festival. I do not detect great materialistic greed either. Yes, gifts are exchanged, but these often anti-climactic transactions do not explain the sense of anticipation that many feel on Christmas Eve, the formal start of the collective celebratory mood.
The excitement has much more to do with collectivism than with gifts. For a few days we all are in this together and that is what matters, even if our upbeat behaviour is irrational. The other day, I phoned a friend to suggest we must meet before Christmas, as if it is quite impossible to meet afterwards. I was not alone in being so bonkers – most of us emerge from the coming few days slightly surprised that life carries on. Indeed, that surprise is part of the unifying madness. We are all at it. From north to south, and east to west, dinners are planned, parties are held and walks take place for a breath of fresh air, the excursions and the gatherings all becoming slightly different because it is “Christmas”. The normally fractured UK is at one.
This need for binding events, however shallow the cause, also explains the enduring appeal of the royal family. The eccentric, unaccountable, more or less publicly silent individuals that form one family become a vehicle for us to celebrate or mourn together, depending on whether one of their number has got married, been born, or died. I have a friend who goes to a party on days of royal celebration where they all dress up. He loves it, although fully aware of the absurdity. It is an opportunity to be silly with others. The excuse for communality is again the key.
We could do with some more substantial excuses in our atomised society. In my part of north London there are so many coffee shops you can inhale a caffeine high as you walk. The cafes are always packed. One owner told me that they have become substitute offices for the growing number of freelance workers in the area who feel the need to get out. If the 1980s was the decade in which some working-class communities were wiped out, the current one marks the splintering of the middle classes with fewer working in an office alongside others.
Politics and the Church offer alternative tribes, but depressingly few now seek to join a party, and church attendances have been in decline for years. Football remains a great tribal attraction, but the connections between supporters and their club are more tenuous than they once were. Although fans still refer to their chosen team as “we”, the association is comically limited. I have been in touch with a range of friends about the semi-crisis at “our” club, Tottenham Hotspur. The sacking of the manager, the dip in form – perhaps arrested, perhaps not – has brought us together. Again, what we enjoy is the collective sense of despair and hope. We know virtually nothing about the multi-millionaire players who pass through the club, but at least we all know nothing, our ignorance is a connection.
But the connection is narrow. In contrast, I recently attended the funeral of a relative from Camborne in Cornwall. I had been snooty about Camborne, a town of apparently limited charm compared with the coastal resorts that have become the equivalents of Notting Hill, on sea. But the funeral service was a testament to the power of community. The deceased had been a police officer. His wife sings in choirs. They were Methodists. The church was packed.
There was a much more tangible sense of togetherness than would have been the case in the more glamorous towns in Cornwall or, indeed, in London. It was like going back to the 1950s. Camborne has a strong community and no restaurants. In so many towns there are plenty of restaurants, and no sense of community.
The places where atomised individuals live largely apart rely on strong national institutions to act as powerful binding agencies. Yet they, too, are threatened by anti-state ideologues arguing that markets must replace the NHS, that schools must be “free”, and that the BBC must be scrapped – leaving us all even more isolated than we are already. Lofty critics describe the health service, patronisingly, as a national religion. Those who worship at its altar are fully aware of its flaws but are grateful that when they fall ill they do not have the additional worry of working out how to pay for the treatment.
The national worship is rational. Individual schools are part of a local community, their attitudes and policies inevitably having an impact on other schools. They cannot be wholly free from the rest of the community. The BBC has epic failings, but take it away and the country becomes even more fractured. We must not rely on Christmas and royal families alone to keep us all in it together.
A welcome pause in the frenzy
There is one substantial reason for non-believers to celebrate Christmas. It is the only time of the year when there is a pause in the eternal political drama.
There used to be a break over the month of August, but now in that summer month “crises” erupt to fill the vacuum in the news cycle.
One of the strangest stories last August was the crisis in the Labour party. There was some internal discontent before August, and there still is. But nothing happened in August itself. Even so, a question that raged for weeks on end was: “Where are the Shadow Cabinet?”
The boring answer was that quite a lot of them were on holiday. When they were in the UK, before August, they could not get any media interest in what they were doing. But by the end of the month Ed Miliband faced a leadership crisis. Indeed, on his return from his break he was door-stepped by a TV journalist and asked whether he would resign.
Over Christmas, however, there will not be an attempt to manufacture a crisis for David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Miliband. The trio take a break. Even potential rebels turn down requests to appear on news programmes in the unlikely event that such requests are made. Politics will be calm and will appear to be calm.
The dynamics of the exaggerated frenzy do not work. Should Cameron move even further to appease the right? I’m sorry he’s having his Christmas dinner. Where’s Miliband? He’s having his dinner, too. Let them eat turkey and let us all enjoy the fleeting pause.