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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Christmas - Feast, Famine and Fiction

I'd say I've always hated Christmas, but that's not really the whole truth. I've been in love with the abstraction of Christmas ever since the ghost of Jacob Marley scared the bejesus out of me by staring out at an oblivious Scrooge in the form of a doorknocker. It's the December/January shut down I hate. I usually find myself in one of two situations during this period - either paid to do nothing, or not. In the one instance idleness drives me to find new and creative ways to ruin my life and prospects, and in the other, I starve. This year is different. This year, I find myself with quite a lot of work to do and, somewhat unusually, receiving moneys to do it.

While I've always looked on the enforced good will of this season with a somewhat jaded eye, someone who loved Christmas with a fanaticism worthy of a better cause was Charles Dickens. A prolific author at the best of times, he seems to have extended himself when it came to seasonal fiction, his productions ranging from the unmemorable (and practically unreadable) Cricket on the Hearth, to his iconic Christmas Carol. It's in this second work where we see Dickens at his effulgent, heavy-handed best. This is really the man's true mêtier - a morality tale, simple to the point of crudity, hammered home with a variety of blunt instruments ranging from the pathetic (Tiny Tim) to the grotesque (Marley).

It's curious to note just how utterly childlike Dickens seems to have been. His adults, never particularly convincing, are even less so here. What anchors and redeems the novella is his disconcertingly keen insight into the inner lives of children. His description of the lone child at boarding school, Scrooge's grand nephews and nieces, are poignantly verisimilitudinous. And on another level, his conception of Christianity and ideal human relationships has more than a touch of the Mediaeval about it, an adolescent era if ever there was one. The whole book is, in fact, pre-modern, and not just because of its didactic insistence on the evils of modern commercialism. That heady mixture of fear, awe, pure love and open-handed patronage is classic, extravagant Mediaevalism writ large. This is what gives the book its most enduring quality - a keen, bittersweet sense of nostalgia. A yearning for simpler times, larger souls and purer hearts.

Compare this cockeyed idealism with the author I've always thought of as Dickens' modern-day counterpart, Terry Pratchett. The late great Pratchett had the same prolific imagination and focus on domestic detail. Both Dickens and Pratchett wrote quite a lot, hammered out quick and rough for money, but their works are saved from being trash by a core of keen humanity, intelligence and observation. But whereas Dickens pursues a childish fantasy of a decent world filled with decent people, Pratchett likes to look at deep origins - his fantasy is one of unbroken continuity. His Christmas book, Hogfather, inverts the feast in much the same way as the Carol, using Death as a flaneur to examine its traditions, but his focus is on paganism. Blood, ritual murder and snow. One gets the sense of a horde of blinkered, ignorant human cattle going through ritual motions they know not why. But it's vitally important they go through these motions because, if they don't, the conceptual world as we know it would end. Humanity is made of ideas, and it doesn't matter, according to Pratchett, whether we really understand them at all.

We see that where Dickens looks back with the eye of love, Pratchett looks beneath with a kindly, but sneering assumption of intellectual superiority. If Dickens is a mediaevalist, Pratchett is very much a benevolent Tory. Where both of them meet, however, is in pointing an accusatory finger at the essential hypocrisy of the season. Of a time when we all spout generosity and goodwill and lock ourselves in suburban fastnesses to gorge on plenty and ignore everything beyond our own little circles. Both of them point to the uncomfortable truth that care for the poor and downtrodden probably isn't supposed to be confined to a few weeks at the end of the year, and nor should it be limited to unobjectionable and photogenic little match-selling girls dying in the snow.

It's a bit dichotomous, this whole Christmas thing, and I think that's what I find most distasteful about it. That simultaneity of generosity and mendacity, the idea of households eating their fill in simulated joy while, just a couple of streets away, December is despair, empty pockets and a deep sense of failure. A season where you're significantly more likely to both get smiled at in the street and murdered by your partner. It's this dichotomy which generally flings me into such a slough of despond over the season. So it's a good thing, really, that I've got a bunch of work to do and will be far too busy to dwell on that sort of thing this year.

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