Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

Reproduced from the RT Logo

Anyone brought up in the post - Christian culture of these islands twitches at the word Christmas. It is everywhere. There is no escape, no indifference. Even the act of avoiding it, either for religious or personal reasons, is a statement about its power and intensity. This week's Cutting Edge (Monday C4) offers a little hymn to the occasion. Quietly understated, it covers every aspect, all the reactions, from gross overindulgence to utter rejection - and, for some, the feeling of being utterly rejected.

Christmas drags us back and together, a communal binding of spirits tugging at family or friends willy and often nilly.

This film has no grand theme, no point, nothing particular to say: it simply observes how Christmas is for all kinds of people, including the turkeys. The conflicting sentiments expressed in this collage of experiences are probably held simultaneously by most of us. Only children have unmixed feelings about it - and even they are left wondering, after a very young age, how all that extreme expectation vanishes so fast in a postprandial slump. The older you get, the more the melancholy ghosts of Christmas past obtrude, wistful for a loss of innocence despite a frantic effort to reclaim it just for one day. However hard the attempt, a Christmas cracker lacks the magic at 50 that it had when you were five. Ghosts of Christmasses future beckon, too.

Christmas shopping hell can reduce even the wise to anxiety attacks. Halfway down Oxford Street, crushed in crowds, fingers cut to ribbons by heavy carrier bags, nausea can take hold. Why are you doing this, yet again? The entire family is going through pre-Christmas hell, cursing and spending in order to demonstrate - what? All this tension ends in one great orgy of unwrapping, and what adult really cares if a present is not perfect? Come the day, all that shopping panic fades into a mist of wasted money and energy. And yet you go out and do it again, year after year.

But while shopping and wrapping, cooking and moaning, stop for a moment and contemplate the alternative. On a remote Scottish island, 150 adherents of the puritanical Free Church of Scotland (the Wee Frees) ignore Christmas altogether. Their leader, Reverend James R Tallach, explains their strict observance of the Bible. "No angel, no apostle ever said remember specifically on a day of the year the birth of Christ," he says. So they do nothing. He has better reasons than mere biblical literalism. The Christmas spirit is fraudulent and sentimental. Hung over next day, he says, celebrants will say to themselves, "I am still the same failure to myself ever was." And so they will be. But that, too, is part of the point of Christmas - how could it be otherwise?

Strict Christians despise this as a pagan festival stolen from ancient celebrations of the midwinter solstice, the day still marked by druids, who also ignore Christmas. Instead, they gather on 21 December on a dark heath and chant of how the Earth goddess's daughter is kidnapped each year and kept underground until freed again in the spring. This weird crew, mixing Arthurian and just about every other myth and rite they can find ("We invented some on the bus on the way here"), may lack the cathedrals and the rituals that were stolen by the Christians long ago, but at least their faith is grounded in the observable seasons, not in a story of Middle Eastern folk 2,000 years ago.

But the Wee Frees and the pagans miss the point. Look at the lengths they go to deny the force of Christmas, how isolated they make themselves from the rest. The power of Christmas resides not in the original story, not in some stable that may or may not be a mis-translation or only ever intended in the gospels as a parable. Charles Dickens, who rarely mentions religion, got it right in A Christmas Carol . Its power is within us, like it or not. It drags us back and together, a communal binding of spirits tugging at family or friends willy and often nilly. Its pathos maybe in its bathos - the trying and failing as much as succeeding in making each other happy. Of course it ends in the highest domestic violence in the year. Of course it ends with people throwing up in taxis, getting into debt, eating and drinking and regretting - being human. It is an absurd, flawed, materialist stab at a kind of redemption, with all its singing Santas made in Taiwan and Barbie-faced angels from Bangladesh.

So Cutting Edge brings us to the noble Samaritans manning the telephones all through the Christmas holiday, trying to pick up the pieces for the lonely and desperate. All this is for the children, we say - and so it is. It is for the lost child in all of us, making some happy, making others sad, depending on temperament and circumstance. "It's so commercialised," we moan, laden with shopping bags. But inside all the wrapping and the tinsel remains the pristine idea, a kernel at the heart of even the worst office party: a duty to live and enjoy because life is as short as the shortest day it marks. This is the humanist Christmas message.





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Email:Radio Times  16 - 22 December 2000 File Info: Created 24/12/2000 Updated 24/12/2000 Page Address: http://members.nbci.com/Templarser/toynbee12.html