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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage pose for a photograph as thousands gather in Dublin Castle  

The lessons we can learn from Ireland's gay marriage referendum

Stefano Hatfield
Immigration enforcement officers lead a Romanian national who has been arrested on immigration offences from a house in Southall in London  

Don’t blame migrants – the West helped to create their plight

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?