Let us ring in the spirit of Christmas presents

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The Independent Online

The etymology of the word nostalgia is instructive. As far as we can tell, it derives from the Greek words " nost" meaning "pain in the" and " algia" meaning arse. None the less, it's that season again and feelings of nostalgia crowd out all others. It is a strangely moving time of year, awash with memories of Christmases past, when we were young and full of hope, joy even. These feelings resonate in a complex way, do they not, through the emotional archaeology of Christmas as our children stay up as late as they can to celebrate the birth of Santa.

The etymology of the word nostalgia is instructive. As far as we can tell, it derives from the Greek words " nost" meaning "pain in the" and " algia" meaning arse. None the less, it's that season again and feelings of nostalgia crowd out all others. It is a strangely moving time of year, awash with memories of Christmases past, when we were young and full of hope, joy even. These feelings resonate in a complex way, do they not, through the emotional archaeology of Christmas as our children stay up as late as they can to celebrate the birth of Santa.

The spirit of Christmas past has long been overtaken by the spirit of Christmas presents. Yesterday, we gathered under the vermilion tree (it's giving off a heat ripple, melting slightly, bubbling merrily on the radiator) to exchange our traditional gifts of mobile telephones.

My sons and I, a family at peace with itself, put the fairy on the treetop the more easily to look up her skirt (there are anatomical incorrectitudes to comment on). We have fashioned a crib to display the People's Virgin ( Sabrina the Teenage Witch), the halls are decked with posters of the Queen of Pre-Teen Heaven ( Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and we have trudged in the midwinter chill to float the yule log back across the flood plain.

All is as it ever will be.

As the evening gathered around us and each of us sitting alone with our thought, there came the sound of distant wassailers in the street. It was with a catch in our throat that we listened to our favourite songs (Marilyn Manson, the non-broadcast version of "Slim Shady", also more traditional renditions of Sid's "My Way" and Black Sabbath's first album). And Christmas dinner - call us old-fashioned - is an XL Burger King meal with all the trimmings. And it goes down so much the better, seasoned with the gently toxic thrill of tree melt.

Ah memory! Will my children know, in their corpulent middle age, casting back into the dense pain of the past, whether they had five robot dogs when they were six, or six robot dogs when they were five? Yes, memories are made of this.

***

At least it's dark by half-past two.

For reasons that needn't detain us, my family has spent many of our Christmases in the southern hemisphere. The sun, the surf, the beach parties - the slip into the sea, the slap of sunscreen, the slop of gin from the bumper quart bottles - it was desperately unseasonal. Young women in bikinis wandering in and out of beach houses have no resonance with the meaning of Christmas.

Midsummer is the opposite of Christmas, that's the point of it. The pagan ritual combines the crucifying melancholy of midwinter with the prospect of rebirth, renewal. The midnight vigil celebrates the revival of light; the victory of the day over darkness. It's an ancient metaphor, based on misery, seasonally affected depression and short rations.

But the south of the world has none of this; its casual, well-practised hedonism encourages gratuitous nudity and the deployment of long, tanned limbs in the black shadows of country shrubberies.

Even the drinking took place on a more heroic scale than it does here (it's their summer holiday, there are six weeks to process the hangovers). So we played an after-dinner game to try to slow the pace. The drinks cabinet would be emptied; the nearly empty bottles at the back would be taken out and poured into numbered glasses. The game was a blindfold tasting, to see who could distinguish between a single and a double malt whisky.

It turns out that after dinner, the finest palates are unable to distinguish whisky from brandy, red wine from white and vodka from anything at all.

It was a rotten game for slowing the pace of anything, and I recommend it to the northern hemisphere.

***

Christmas also wakens certain disturbing memories of an erotic nature. Yes, my first real erotic encounter occurred on Boxing Day 40 years ago when I was an undeveloped eight-year-old. My sister unwrapped her main present. Out of the shiny paper came a haughty yet strangely submissive polypropylene doll. She had beautiful hair, bulging, sensual lips and luxurious eye lashes. Our eyes met and immediately we knew one another. When I was allowed to hold her, her flesh yielded to the touch, and my breath came short. Through the day and the evening we glanced at each other secretively. My family never knew our secret.

Our boldness increased. When my sister went to a sleepover in early January, she left her doll behind. I found her, the obscure object of my desire, spreadeagled, immodest, wanton on the floor of my sister's room, and lifted her up. We explored the endless, repetitive mystery together.

And yet, you know, I never knew whether my feelings were truly reciprocated.

We shared a feverish intimacy for six months, and I never even knew her name. Her arm came off, eventually, and in my immaturity, I allowed that to come between us. She was perfect or she was nothing. It's as well we grow up.

***

Raw, erotic energy continues to break through the Christmas spirit on screen every year. We get out videos and watch them together, my boys and I. Well, they have to learn about these things somehow, and Walt Disney is as good a tutor as any, particularly when there's a five-for-four special on The Lion King, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella and Snow White.

Christian fundamentalists, acting on information, went through the Lion King frame by frame and found that a mischievous graphic artist had coloured the wind-swept savannah in such a way as to spell the word sex.

Their outrage missed the point that Disney cartoons are saturated in sex - not in subliminal single frames but right up there in loving, lingering scenes with two-dimensional characters 20 feet high.

When you give your children Peter Pan, be prepared for Tinkerbell. This dizzy, streaked-blonde is a living compendium of passion, power, possessiveness. She wears a nifty little skate-skirt that flips up to show her knickers. She gets stuck at the waist in the keyhole of a needle drawer; she is thus presented in a position of maximum availability as she writhes and stamps, and her skirt flaps up and down. At her other end her lips and cheeks flush with rage (and oh, she is at her most beautiful when she is angry).

Very little later, topless mermaids gaze up at Peter, adoringly, sweeping their hair out of their eyes in a blatant offer. They plead to hear his adventures; their admiration is of the very highest quality, they press their bosoms against the rock and because we've been to sea ourselves, we remember that mermaids have no morals at all.

There follows a grossly indecent scene with an Indian girl. Peter and she end up pressing noses together in a firelit dance. The skirling hem of her indigenous skirt rides up her thighs while the maddening drums continue their crescendo. Like Tinkerbell, she too is wiggling her rear end in the air.

Wendy knows exactly what's going on. She takes one look and immediately prepares to leave Neverland (any decent woman would).

In Aladdin, Princess Jasmine's waist is extraordinarily enticing to evil Jafar, if only because there's nothing on it. She feigns desire for the ugly sorcerer, and as she walks towards him her hands slide down her undulating body like water. Her voice is low and full of promise; she calls his name and advances on him, a woman confirmed in the dark certainty of her power.

The horrible old man drools obscenely. And so, I fear, do I.

The next time you see Snow White, be prepared for a scene of Rabelaisian ripeness. Our heroine, with her flawless complexion, and nipped-in waist is stretched out across seven beds. She is lying in that languorous way that leading ladies did in the 1930s, after being rogered senseless in the afternoon. As she wakes she stretches and shows us her wrists (it's a display of vulnerability that inflames predatory male instincts).

The dwarfs are hiding behind the headboards. They put their heads up one by one and as they do so, their noses pop up and hang over their headboards one by one like seven individual, oddly-shaped and rather repulsive phalluses.

Freud said: "The nose is the phallus of the face," and I'd always thought it was the silliest remark imaginable until seeing this.

But there we are. It all represents the rebirth of desire from the cold and the dark.

That's how we know it's Christmas.

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