Philip Hensher: Christmas puts us all on a stage. Is that why we've come to dread it?

Share
Related Topics

Somewhere in one of Elizabeth Taylor's novels, a character makes the cardinal error of alluding, casually, to Christmas in the middle of November. "Oh, don't," her friend responds with, Taylor says, "all the English dread Christmas".

If only it were possible to distinguish between Christmas and Christmassiness. Many anthologies have been put together of the literature of Christmassiness. They generally include an impenetrable metaphysical lyric called something like "On his Saviour's Nativitie" and comparing the Virgin Mary to a scrubbing brush. There is Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas In Wales and Christina Rossetti. And there is, of course, A Christmas Carol.

Brilliantly done as A Christmas Carol is, you can't help feeling that it has put rather a burden on English literature and the English Christmas. Of course, Christmas was almost always celebrated in England, but it was only really with Dickens that the more impressionable of his readers started making noises about "the true meaning of Christmas", and suggesting that it was the time when we tell each other how much we mean to each other. A Christmas Carol, surely the most universally known and retold work in the whole of English literature, made us put too much weight on Christmas.

The inadvertent result is another sort of anthology which could be put together of English Christmas refuseniks. Sometimes it's just jolly well Not Joining In – in Robert Liddell's lovely The Last Enchantments, the narrator and his brother retire to bed with bowls of bread and milk and David Copperfield. In George Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter, the awful headmistress Mrs Creevy "produced some sprigs of holly that she had saved from last year, dusted them, and nailed them up; but she did not, she said, intend to have a Christmas dinner ... Dorothy [her employee] ate her Christmas dinner – a hard-boiled egg, two cheese sandwiches, and a bottle of lemonade – in the woods near Burnham".

There is a memorable scene in Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head in which an evangelical neighbour bursts in on a perfectly respectable agnostic family's Christmas dinner "to bring the simple meaning of Christmas" and is thoroughly ripped to shreds. In Kingsley Amis's Ending Up, the grandchildren come to visit and hold their grandmother at arm's length when they meet – the guests would have embraced their host properly "if Adela hadn't smelt so old". A particular joy, I think, is Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air, a nightmarish melange of a Christmas, with paedophile publishers, clinically depressed aunts, kleptomaniac teens and monstrously showing-off little girls all confined under one roof.

The literature in English against Christmas is a long and distinguished one. Probably, there would be much more if most of us did not feel, with some force, how threatening the Dickensian label of "Scrooge" is. And yet still, the vast majority of people in this country make an effort, every year, to spend Christmas with their relations; to re-enact rituals that have probably not changed within families for decades; to bond or bicker over far too much food.

Personally, I totally love it all, and the moment when the taxi drops us off at my parents' suitably Victorian house with the Christmas tree shining out of the dining room window is always a very happy one. To my husband, who grew up in a Muslim society and never experienced anything remotely Christmassy until he was over 30, the festival is very slightly baffling. It doesn't help that the rules and customs around it are not up for discussion.

"Can I go upstairs and have a nap this afternoon?" "No – you're allowed to fall asleep in front of the telly, but you can't have a siesta in bed." "Can we watch a DVD?" "No, you've got to watch the Christmas movie." "Can't we have something hot for supper – I don't mind cooking some pasta." "No, it's got to be cold meat and game and cheese and pickles and salad."

For some reason, my family has never eaten turkey for dinner as long as I can remember. It's thought that my dad, around 1967, just looked up and said "I loathe turkey", and it's never appeared since. My days, we've been through the roasted birds in the past 40 years, with rather a posh pheasanty patch with bigarade in the late Seventies. There is a ritual raspberry yoghurt for my sister, who used to cry at the idea of Christmas pudding in youth and never got to like it subsequently. Other families, I know, go to midnight mass, religious belief or none considered quite irrelevant. We never have, though I happen to know that my husband simply longs to. Why? Because we've never done it, of course.

It must be admitted that not everyone fits cosily into these annual rituals. As a nation, we probably spend much less time with our families than most world cultures. A British family with more than two generations living under the same roof, or even within two miles of each other, is now a rarity – in most cases, such set-ups probably have recentish origins in non-British cultures. And then we come together in confined spaces for one extended period, once a year, and expect the product to have at least a tinge of Dickensian warmth, redemption and filial love.

A sociologist of the Erving Goffman school would say that Christmas within the family is supremely a moment of performance and the management of impression. Goffman makes a distinction between two sorts of behaviour. There is on-stage behaviour, which constitutes the managed impression we present to the world, even in our own homes. Then there is offstage behaviour, when the doors are closed and we can let our hair down, either with licence or quite inadvertently. Christmas within the family is, surely, for many people the most taxing of on-stage occasions. The bar is set terribly high, and we feel an obligation not just to love our family members, as we probably do anyway, but to demonstrate that love in showy and often opulent ways. There is a pressure to produce a Nigella-perfect dinner: to exchange the familiar foul-mouthed and inadequately grateful loved ones of the rest of the year for some well-groomed and charming relations. Of course off-stage behaviour tends to raise its head over the boiled sprouts as a few home truths are quietly dealt out between aunts at the far end of the table.

And of course we cling to home-made ritual to get us through the day. You'd miss it if it ever went – if the nation stopped closing down for a couple of days of mass getaway. The blessing is that, for many people, it is a perfectly secular occasion. What it means is, often, comfortingly, what it always used to mean. And that doesn't happen very often any more.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee