By Laurence Speight
Patrick Kavanagh wrote ambivalently of Christmas in his distinctly anti-modern poem ‘Advent’: “We have tested and tasted too much, lover/Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
/Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
/Of penance will charm back the luxury/
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
/The knowledge we stole but could not use”.
Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, but the strengths of the icons in contemporary Ireland are an extraordinary contrast; the man himself a force of diminishing dynamism in this society, his birthday is a worshipped commercial commonplace.
At its best Christmas is a celebration of all that is good about the human experience including family and community, joy, sociability, generosity, forgiveness, and desire for peace between warring parties. It is a time of hope and new beginnings. In spite of this Christmas is celebrated in a contradictory manner.
Ask the innocents: the hundreds of millions of turkeys, chickens and pigs that will be unwitting centrepieces of the traditional Christmas dinner around the world. It is estimated that 22 million turkeys in the United States, 10 million in the UK and 700,000 in the Republic of Ireland will take one for the human team this yule.
And it is not a happy time for industrially planted conifers.
Christmas elevates consumption of all kinds with a corresponding increase in toxic waste, greenhouse gasses, loss of biodiversity and the suffering of those in low-wage economies.
If we took account of the negative impact of Christmas on the biosphere we would no more celebrate it than we would a riot in which vital amenities were torched.
Christmas particularly conduces to the exchange of ephemeral dross: a plastic-destined-for-landfill squandermania – Terry-the-Swearing-Turtle in your stocking. If there were not an increase in unthinking consumption, shopkeepers, economists and politicians would consider it a bad Christmas.
Christmas, since the time of Charles Dickens, has been mass make-believe sustained by the retail, advertisement and entertainment sectors (which George Monbiot calls “the global bullshit industries”), rooted in an unspoken agreement between producers and consumers to turn a blind eye to consequences and contradictions.
As Eric Fromm, who spent his academic life analysing and criticising the modern mind, wrote in ‘To Have Or To Be?’ (1976): “most people are half-awake, half-dreaming, and unaware that most of what they hold to be true and self-evident is illusion produced by the suggestive influence of the social world in which they live”.
As in a grotesques fable, Christmas is a prescribed happy time in which bonhomie and wellbeing can only be realised through material consumption, gluttony and glitter, excess and inoculating inebriation, contrived festive partying, and tantrums – childish and adult. Banal but cheery Christmas-themed television, schlocky ads for mobile phones and department stores, forced attendance at corny reprises of ‘A Christmas Carol’, and threadbare pantos. This all speaks of the failure of our education system, religious bodies and civic culture to nurture critical, creative and imaginative thinking that allows for the collective seasonal desire for renewal, the expression of appreciation and goodwill to be celebrated in ways that are wholesome, constructive and elevating.
Christmas encapsulates our society’s dominant values and cultural norms. It enfranchises the herd instinct – the desire, not to be thought an ‘odd-ball’, or Scrooge. The desire to feel part of the great social mass is achieved at the sacrifice of ‘knowing’ in Eric Fromm’s use of the term, which is “to penetrate through the surface, in order to arrive at the roots, and hence the causes … to ‘see’ reality in its nakedness”. Compassion too must be selectively suppressed to avert isolation from what is considered normal.
While austerity has its place in political circles, frugality is certainly not cool. At 1965 per head, according to PWC, Ireland spends twice what even the US throws at Christmas morning. To little advantage.
George Monbiot has written: “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t”. It is up to progressive individuals to break the mindless mould and celebrate yuletide consumer minimalism.
Life-affirming ideas can take root in the collective mind. It is not just Humbug. As Owen Jones wrote recently in the Guardian, “if we can build a society that encourages greed and sentiments which justify inequality, then we can also build a society nurturing solidarity, compassion and equality”. Science casts some credibility on this theory on the premise that if the selfish gene had prevailed during the course of our evolution humankind would be extinct.
It’s truly time to “see reality in its nakedness”. Kavanagh’s poem finishes with hope not from Christmas but from its absence. Time to discard the knowledge we never use, to cherish wonder.
The hope is in the poem’s final line that “Christ comes with a January flower”. •