Friday, 30 December 2016

The ghosts of Christmas past

I love Christmas and everything that goes with it: the decorations, the presents, the music, the shameless excess, and the convivial atmosphere. It's the summer of the soul in December, as the Muppets once sang - a warm glow of joy amid that cheerless gulf that begins in autumn and ends in spring.

I once spent a Christmas in Australia and was amused to discover they share our imagery of snowscapes and roaring fires, despite it being the middle of their summer. Much of this has to do with their British roots, of course, but it’s also because our notion of Christmas in the Anglosphere is inextricably tied to the traditions popularised by the Victorians. Christmas is an exercise in nostalgia for our own pasts and those of others.

Try as we might, we can never recapture the magic of a childhood Christmas. This is partly because our sense of wonder fades as we grow older, and we lose the ability to be enchanted by the small things: the sparkle of tinsel, the novelty of once-a-year customs, the thought of Santa tiptoeing through your house. It’s also because gift-getting is less beguiling when you can afford to buy things for yourself and can no longer immerse yourself in a spirit of unbridled selfishness.

It seems to me the Christmas we reminisce about and try to resurrect each year belongs to an age that ended sometime in the early 1990s – perhaps because this is when the world began to take on a look and feel that is familiar today. The warm glow of remembrance is generally reserved for different, simpler times, not dogeared versions of the here-and-now.

Christmases of yore were chintzy and cheap, but that was their charm. The gaudy decorations, tacky gifts and blurry snapshots of yesteryear contained more authenticity than than anything found in the big-budget, pixel-perfect modern Christmas.

Maybe no one has recorded a decent Christmas single lately because we’ve lost the ability to be so cheerfully uncool. Then again, maybe we lacked the means to be anything else back then, and modern advancements have cost us our appreciation of modest pleasures. Yesterday's stuff of wonder is today's humdrum; the once-luxurious is now throw-away cheap; what used to be hard to find is just a mouse click away. We expect and demand convenience and sophistication. That’s the price of progress and there’s no way of putting the genie back in its lamp.

Progress has also made the world a smaller place. We are connected as never before to other people, inundated with a constant flow of news and information, able to document our lives and exchange opinions from anywhere on the planet. This is a far cry from when teenagers relied on letters, magazines and transistor radios to reach beyond their provincial bedrooms – lines of communication that made the world feel bigger for being so insubstantial. 

This sense of detachment from the wider world made it less relevant to people than the comings and goings of their own lives. They were less susceptible to fads and opinions from faraway places, and more concerned with what was happening right in front of them. The wider world repaid this indifference by leaving individuals, by and large, to their own devices, free to manage their affairs, voice their opinions and rub along with others as they saw fit. People’s lives were smaller, yet more intimate, and called for more personal engagement.

This was the Britain of my youth in the early 1980s. The country was still a grey, parochial place – a land of YTS schemes, picket lines and Findus Crispy Pancakes. Entertainment was three TV stations watched on a square wooden box. Offices were smoke-filled places, full of typewriters and casual sexism. Politics was a battleground, stalked by Tory radicals and Labour Trots. And above everything loomed the Cold War and the threat of armageddon.

No wonder feel-good pop music was so pervasive at the time. People needed a little colour in their lives, and those sun-drenched videos, garish hair-dos and ridiculous outfits provided the perfect tonic. Who wouldn't want to visit Club Tropicana or holiday on Duran Duran’s yacht when there were three million unemployed and nuclear oblivion was a four-minute warning away?

The Eighties also represented a tipping point, from a Britain steeped in heritage and tradition to a modern, forward-looking nation. It was the twilight of a less cynical, knowing age; gloriously corny, perhaps, but but less uptight and pretentious than today.

For a few brief years, we had the best of both worlds: a Britain that was still decidedly British, but experiencing the first exotic signs of globalisation. For the young, it was an especially thrilling time, because popular culture was pitched more squarely at them than ever before. A technological revolution saw home computers, microwaves and video recorders becoming commonplace in people’s homes, and all this razzamataz was sufficiently baffling to the older generation to suggest a line had been drawn in the sand. It was the dawning of a new era that belonged to the young.

This is significant, because our way of life until then had been largely dictated by that older generation. Most World War Two veterans were barely out of middle-age, and their influence, interests and experiences loomed large in our lives. They respected the past and its achievements, and paid tribute to them through the preservation of everything from our social norms to our architecture. It was clearly no longer Victorian England, but enough of that period’s ideas and infrastructure had survived to provide a sense of continuity from one age to another.

I am reminded of this by an incident from my childhood. I was seated by the window of my school classroom in what is now an antiquated scene: blackboard and chalk, rows of ink-stained lid-top desks. It was a cold morning and I was enjoying the warmth of an old cast-iron radiator set beneath the window. In places, the paint had been chipped away from the metal, revealing ancient layers that marked the passing of the years like the rings on a tree. It occurred to me that some of the caretakers who had applied this paint were long dead, and that the hundreds of children who had sat in this spot before me were now grown men, or had already completed life’s journey. That radiator, that classroom and that school were small monuments to rituals and experiences stretching back a hundred years or more.

This conservation of what has stood the test of time and is still fit for purpose - be it accumulated experience or old buildings - is a disappearing practice. In its place has grown a conviction that the past is a country best forgotten. The Britain many people grew up in stands accused of doing wrong. The guardians of tradition have been usurped by the champions of the ‘wronged’, who have built a society in their own image - one that worships the new and disparages the old.

And so shared customs and common ties have been scorned out of existence; cherished artefacts have made way for charmless replacements; the freedom to live an unsupervised life has slipped away. These are not things to be discarded lightly, since they contain the wisdom of the ages, and catalogue the stories and traditions that make us who we are. They don’t dictate our fate, but inform our choices and embolden us to do things that conventional thinking might put out of bounds.

Perhaps the nostalgia that consumes us at this time of the year is the response of people who feel that, in the march of progress, they have left something behind. Like the Soviets who realised their way of life was wrong despite knowing no other, the society served up to us nowadays doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t reflect our tastes or stem from our experiences.

This is why the big public events we organise nowadays have lost their authenticity: because they are no longer a part of who are. I recall the celebrations that surrounded the Silver Jubilee of 1977 and the Royal Wedding of 1981 as being genuine outpourings of public affection. Street parties were just what people did. There was nothing contrived or ersatz about them; they were as genuine as any similar events to have taken place in the previous century. By comparison, more recent public celebrations have had a whiff of tribute to them. They feel forced and phoney – simulacrums of the real thing, orchestrated by people who don’t really care for them, or are hoping to resurrect experiences and sentiments that have been lost to us.

Progress - particularly the technological kind - has made it easier for us to stay connected, but has enabled us to keep each other at arm’s length. As online communication has become the norm, the civility of face-to-face contact has evaporated. Battlelines have been drawn, positions have hardened and resentment has intensified. Meeting in person is seen as weird and troublesome, and staying in to avoid the hell of other people is preferable to setting aside your hang-ups to be part of a crowd.

None of this is conducive to the joyous, devil-may-care attitude that characterises Christmas, which is probably why we still celebrate it so passionately each year. It’s a chance to throw off our inhibitions, ignore our modern pieties, and be who we used to be. Not racist, drink-driving caricatures, but the people who came together to enjoy simple pleasures and common causes in an unironic, heartfelt way.

So, to borrow from Ebeneezer Scrooge, honour Christmas in your heart and try to keep it all the year. Live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within you. Do not shut out the lessons that they teach.

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