LEADING ARTICLE: Even a Pocahontas Christmas is a chance to dream

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The Independent Online
When pagans celebrated the mid-winter solstice, they had no pangs of conscience. They slaughtered a few animals, mixed up something hot and alcoholic and settled down to having a good time. True, they might have been plagued by the in-laws, difficult children and terrible hangovers, but the British Flintstones knew what the festival was about. They were ready for a break after months of freezing weather and more to come. The December feast was a chance for a change, an opportunity to feel good in the bleak mid-winter. People knew that they would have to return to the gloom, but at least they felt a warm glow for a while. In short, the celebration was a pleasant and worthwhile distraction from the misery of the damp and cold.

These days, we're nothing like as clear about what Christmas means. We torment ourselves with guilt, at the vast amount of spending, at all the food and the drink consumed. There is a sense of shame about it, a feeling that the paganism of the modern day is obscene and somehow should be abandoned. Each year, we carry on with the annual binge, and then we hate ourselves for it. For a few days, we all know what it is to be the Princess of Wales.

And then there is the navel-gazing over the supposed hypocrisy of Christmas. Cynics decry the bonhomie. They dismiss the cheer that mysteriously appears in the third week of December, and disappears as quickly by the first week in January as misanthropy dominates once again. There is also, as our letters' column has recently revealed, endless concern about whether or not children should be told the truth about Santa Claus. "We're damaging them by telling them lies," warns the anti-fantasy brigade. Meanwhile, the self-righteous look accusingly at church attendances and suggest that people lack sincerity, that they treat churches as theme parks, turning up for the Christmas Eve carol service, never to darken a church door for the rest of year.

All of these phenomena - the over-indulgence and the brief flirtation with church-going - lead many to think that Christmas is a rather sad exercise in empty consumerism, superficial religiosity and insincere philanthropy. Would it not be better if there were no Christmas at all?

To ask that question is to begin to reveal the modern meaning of the event. It is, like the pagan feast, a chance to live out a collective fantasy, an opportunity to imagine a different, summery world. The fact that that world disappears soon after does not make its invocation a waste of time.

For children the collective fantasy centres on Santa, a virtual deity, who loves all children and makes a trip to every home. He is an utterly benign figure. Suggesting his existence is not a lie, it is giving a child a chance to dream. The Santa image, and its notion of no-strings-attached giving, is important in helping children have a sense of their own intrinsic value.

So what about the adult collective fantasy: the idea that we all love each other according to the principles of Christianity? All right, so we don't. And we never did. There is no point in feeling nostalgic: if Christianity had ever really dictated everyday behaviour, the history of the world would have been very different.

No one really believes that their old differences have suddenly dissolved at Christmas. We are meant to play along with the fantasy of Christmas, a bit like children who already know the truth about Santa. It does no harm to mark a few days in the year at a time when everyone takes the goodwill tablet. Who knows, like turkey, people might begin to fancy it all year around.

The Royal Family does not seem to have grasped this tradition. Princess Diana and the Queen, fighting to make their candidates King (Wills in Diana's case, Charles in the Queen's) could not let matters rest until January amid Yuletide good humour. So the Princess refused to turn up at Sandringham for Christmas and the Queen ordered a divorce, five days before Christmas Day. The spirit of Christmas does not seem quite to have reached the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

Speaking of religion, Christian images are not as a prevalent as they once were. Characters from The Lion King have replaced religious pictures on chocolate advent calendars. A plastic figure of Pocahontas is as sacred as a relic would once have been from Santiago de Compostela: Walt Disney is establishing a monopoly of the supernatural. We are also living in a period when fame, power and wealth create the elect, those apparently heading for the right life. Grace, holiness and sanctity are conferred more by the camera than by good works.

But Christianity, at this time of the year, does still have a powerful message. To believers, Christmas represents a new beginning of unique impact on the world, the birth of a saviour for the human race. But even to those who do not believe, the season's message contradicts conventional values. What is splendid about Christianity is that it says the woman who makes Nike shoes on a Third World poverty wage is as important and valuable as the woman who endorses them for a huge fee. And the focus of worship at Christmas is not some great powerful, authority figure in a sharp suit, with loads of money and few scruples. It is, instead, a picture of helplessness, a needy baby. This is an image that emphasises the idea of renewal, going back to the pagan origins of the festival.

In short, it is never going to be Christmas every day. The whole point of it is to enjoy a special time, think and believe afresh, even if by Twelfth Night we're back to where we were on Christmas Eve. So follow the example of the Flintstones. Set aside the guilt, enjoy the feast, try being nice to people and let a little hypocrisy pass unremarked. The harsh winds of January are not far away.