(This was first published in Le News 11 December 2014)
Is anyone else out there feeling a little … I don’t know … besieged … by the seasonal messages to buy everything in sight?
No sooner was Halloween over, than I started being propositioned by my inbox every time I opened my computer.
‘Holiday deals,’ it would purr, sidling up to me like a dodgy pavement vendor of sunglasses. ‘We both know there’s something here that you want.’
Well, of course there was. But I should never have made eye-contact because pretty soon I couldn’t go online without a zillion mails, banners and pop-ups, all vying for my attention. And as we moved closer to Black Friday, the tone became increasingly hysterical. ‘This is your last chance to buy these amazing books / shoes / sofas / Princess Enchanted Cupcake things! Buy now! Buy now!’
Black Friday gave way to Cyber Monday (what is that, even?) and now … Christmas! Everywhere I look there are ads for toys, luxury foods, new Christmas outfits, new Christmas cars …
Honesty, I don’t need this when I’m online. If I wanted this sort of rampant commodity fetishism, I’d just switch off the computer and watch Disney Junior with my children. No. The Internet is where I go to get away from all that. The Internet is where I go to spend time with my imaginary friends on Facebook; it’s where I go to get the facts to support my beliefs; and it’s where I turned last week, with the search query, ‘What meaning can a non-religious person find in the holiday season, that doesn’t involve bankrupting themselves or getting type 2 diabetes?’
Well. I soon realised that I needed to search no further. Because it’s pointless. It seems that this time of year has always been about crazy excess, heaps of presents, and eating until you almost die.
It seems to be generally accepted that our current Christmas celebrations overlay a number of older festival days and rituals, the most obvious one being the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which lasted from the 17th to 23rd December, and involved lavish gift-giving, out-of-control feasting and lots of alcohol.
In her fascinating book History of Christmas Food and Feasts, author Claire Hopley makes the point that, in the Northern hemisphere, Christmas was the one time of year where food was plentiful – not only the food gathered during the autumn harvest, but also fresh meat, slaughtered to avoid the expense of feeding livestock throughout winter. Knowing lean times surely lay ahead, people ate. And ate. And drank. And ate. And some pretty disturbing things, they ate, too …
Nothing screams ‘modern First World Christmas excess’ to me quite as loudly as that terrifying Frankenfood, the turducken: a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, stuffed into a deboned turkey, then closed up and cooked … like some meat matryoshka doll. But, guess what? It’s not modern at all! Hopley cites a 1747 recipe for a turkey, goose, chicken, pigeon, partridge mash-up, and suggests that the Christmas Carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas may have been inspired by this cooking method: a partridge (in) two doves (in) three hens … although by the time the song gets to the eight maids a-milking, one hopes it has moved onto a different theme.
Anyway, it seems that Christmas excess is just built into the seasonal celebrations and there’s no escaping it. So, to misquote the somewhat threatening lyrics of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, ‘We all like figgy pudding / heaps of presents / desserts with sugar three ways / enough wine to drown in … and we won’t go until we’ve got some … so bring it right here!’