Pantomimes, holly, roast turkey - we are enslaved by the fantasy of a real Christmas

Post-modern rituals
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The Independent Online
They started in October. "Please Mum" begged my children. "Please, this year can we have a real Christmas?" "Not like last year," they chorused. Last year we spent Christmas in Bethlehem which, according to my kids, was "not Christmassy enough". I know what they meant. Sure, He might have been born there but a couple of straggly attempts at a Christmas tree, one string of fairy lights and an enormous poster of Yasser Arafat cannot compete with the wonders of Wood Green Shopping City.

One of the results of their gloriously multi-cultural education is that neither of my children seem to realise that Christmas might have anything to do with Christianity. The fact that Bethlehem is in Arab territory they felt was no excuse for this poor show. Although they can recite the legend of Rama and Sita in great detail they tend to regard all religious festivals as largely secular events, with Christmas just being the biggest and the best.

Anyway, this year they are going to get their real Christmas as they have grounded me. No exotic destinations for us. No we are going to do it properly. Whatever that means. For as I leaf through the Christmas schedules and catalogues, I notice how often the word real crops up. I have watched Gaby Roslin's Real Christmas show, in which ordinary people video their Christmases and then talk about them afterwards. This was the saddest thing I have seen all year. I also see there is a programme called Nigel Slater's Real Christmas Dinner giving us the real taste of Christmas. I have bought "Real" Christmas crackers and a real tree and, like every other woman I know, I am exhausted rushing around to provide this level of realness for my family.

Yesterday, under seasonal strain in the supermarket, I cracked. I bought everything that I could that was ready-made, pre-prepared, "just needs heating". So I notice, did many of the other bad-tempered trolley zombies, who whisper to each other in the aisles about the madness that has overtaken them. Yet I wonder what all this emphasis on realness is about. What does our anxiety about having a real Christmas betray? What happens to you if you fail in the "Real Christmas" stakes? Are you a lesser, sadder person? What is it that propels so many of us to try and replicate what is not actually a "real", but an imaginary Christmas that only exists somewhere in our minds and on our Christmas cards?

It is not simply that we want to recreate the Christmas of our childhoods, for even then I remember feeling that other families did it better than mine, that we were somehow failing. No, we want to create a Christmas that belongs to some collective memory which is not actually our own but lodged deep in the culture. That memory of a Christmas that is rural, communal, spontaneous is the exact opposite to what most of end up with.

Christmas may be a public holiday but it is privatised ritual. We each sit in our own little households, all doing much the same stuff and imaging that someone out there is doing it all perfectly, that their Christmas is somehow the real thing. Those who are too poor or too alone or too depressed are non-starters in the real Christmas stakes. They are immediately disqualified. So how would we categorise the Christmases that don't make the grade? The antithesis of the real Christmases of the imagination? How many of us endure False Christmases, Noels that are not quite good enough?

For isn't that the commonest complaint about the whole damn enterprise. It has been removed from its roots, it's too commercial, it doesn't mean anything any more, it goes on too long, it's just about consumerism, the meaning has been sucked out. We yearn for it all to mean something, something secular and acceptable, something about feelings instead of objects, about people instead of profit. And we look for the odd glimmer of this, as if to reassure ourselves that all the material crassness cannot entirely drain the event of some deeper meaning.

Yet instead of complaining the idea that Christmas isn't like it used to be, why can't we just accept that it is a simulacrum, a simulation, a copy, of something for which there is no original? Then we could worry less about whether it is all real enough or whether it is all too artificial, and accept it for the bizarre post-modern mish-mash that it is. There is almost nothing about Christmas which is authentic, so why pretend otherwise?

The meat that most of us will eat has come from birds whose breasts have been so genetically enlarged that they cannot stand up by themselves. The traditions we make so much of, from Father Christmas onwards, are all modern inventions less than a hundred years old. Most of us will organise our Christmas dinner not around the church service but around what is on television.

Just how slickly post-modern the whole thing has become was brought home to me last week at a pantomime. Those who think that pantos are packed with rich vaudevillian tradition should think again. Their references are not to theatre but to TV, with their B-list celebs, jokes about Sky Television and, I'm afraid, Dennis Waterman singing the theme tune from Minder - I Could Be So Good For You - in the middle of Aladdin. This pantomime consisted of a number of ill-fitting themes woven together. No one seems to mind if the joins are visible: throw in a bit of soap opera, a bit of Chinese legend, a bit of pop culture, a bit of Disney and hey you have a show.

The same could be said of the modern Christmas, which is a jumble of themes and sentiments parceled up together. Let's not kid ourselves there is any great continuity with the past. A contemporary Yule is really something of a pick-and-mix experience. We take the things we want, don't bother with what we don't. What is oppressive is trying to do it all and do it all right. I say let it go. Why can't we do some of it wrong?

Once we liberate ourselves from the idea of a real Christmas then we can revel in our fakes ones, genuinely enjoying the inauthentic, the artificial, the unnatural. Herein lies the true spirit of Christmas, which is that we make the whole thing up. Over and over again. So here's wishing you all a truly unreal Christmas and a magical new year.