A crisp winter’s evening. The still air is broken by the sound of a church bell ringing.
Startled, yet filled with excitement, a small child scrambles to the window. They peer through the pane, leaving a ring of condensation against the frosty glass.
Could it be?
A glimpse – no more – of something in the distance; far away across the snow-covered vista.
It’s magical. It’s here.
It’s really here!
The child rushes to find a warm coat as, carried on the wind, soft voices are heard:
“Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…”
This time of year has always been filled with myths and legends, heart-warming stories to ease us through the coldest of winters. Of late (since 1995 in fact) a new story has joined the canon. The myth of a bright red articulated truck, entering a small snow-dusted town, acting as herald to a non-denominational ‘holiday season’. Crowds gather to share comradeship, love and a famous soft drink.
Every year, at this time, I find myself admitting – to close friends and family – that this tale of the garishly lit vehicle traversing through the snow to bring tidings of (deliberately vague) holidays and fizzy drinks moves me. Genuinely. I don’t feel ‘Christmassy’ until I’ve seen it. This isn’t sarcasm, I’m being totally candid. This revelation usually leads to cries of derision, that, like some modern day overly saccharine Scrooge, I’m ‘missing the true spirit of Christmas’.
Similarly, at this time, naysayers flock to social media to complain about the pop standard given the acoustic treatment for John Lewis’ latest mini movie. These pint-sized epics, depicting sage morals against a backdrop of consumerism, are too frequently dismissed as missing the point.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly.
It’s time to face it, Christmas has been rebranded.
We need to get over it and move on.
What do I mean by this?
If Christmas didn’t exist, we’d need to invent it.
It’s no coincidence that the feast lies at the darkest part of the year, literally ‘in the bleak mid-winter’. A time when we need something to look forward to, a pick-me-up. Pre-Christian society understood this, with their ‘Yuletide’ winter solstice celebrations, which were neatly ‘re skinned’ (using a modern parlance) by early Christianity with the familiar Bethlehem-based narrative. The story changed, but the heart of the feast remained the same – communities coming together to celebrate, during the bleakest of seasons.
The mid-winter oasis of the ‘festive season’ was, for generations, the exclusive territory of religion. But things change, meaning evolves and time moves on. We know, of course, that the ‘holidays’ so movingly crooned of in the Cola commercial are a contraction of the Christian ‘holy days’. Yet the word no longer has an ecclesiastical connotation. The same might be said of ‘Christmas’ itself – an abbreviation of ‘Christ’s Mass’, which (I feel) wouldn’t be the primary definition for most. Like ‘holiday’, the word has new common meaning: a festive period of goodwill and joviality. There are new myths and traditions too, with John Lewis and Coca Cola at the heart of these, here in this country.
I wish those who choose to celebrate the religious during this festive time well. They do not, however, have a monopoly on ‘the true meaning of Christmas’. The meaning of anything in the public domain is constantly evolving, to reflect the times. These new connotations and understandings around the feast are, in my view, totally valid and ‘true’. In the 21st century shopping malls have replaced churches as places of pilgrimage, while brands provide a tribal sense of belonging that used to be the preserve of organised religion.
In truth, I don’t think that, fundamentally, much has changed. Like with all rebrands, the core elements of the offering stay the same, they’re just presented differently. A feast that previously was about family, friendship and celebration against a background of religion, now plays out against a background of consumerism. Both versions help maintain our society’s fabric, yet the rebrand is more relevant for today’s secular life.
Perhaps the view I’m outlining will prove a step too far for some, seeing it as heretical and bold. Perhaps it is. That said, such frustrations about how the mid-winter feast was presented were probably felt by the pre-Christians when their Yuletide was rebranded all those years ago.
I, for one, am excited about Christmas – just like the child with their nose against the glass as the red lorry trundles through the snow. For me, it represents all the best parts of life, a time when people make the effort to be that bit nicer to each other – which can only be a good thing.
The stories we tell each other around this festival are down to us, whether they be tales of friendly monsters under our beds, red nosed reindeer having their day in the sun or overfilled inns improvising accommodation.
All have their place as part of the ‘true’ meaning of this wonderful midwinter shindig…