24 December 2006

So What is this Christmas?

One of the most pernicious aspects of capitalism is its compulsion to appropriate everything exciting, energetic and creative, then package it and sell it back to us. This is what Marx called commodification and nowhere is it more evident than in the celebration of Christmas. The only possible response to the perversion of a sacred festival into a range of shopping experiences is cynical revulsion.

And yet we need a festival in the darkest time of the year. We need an excuse to stay inside our warm homes with our friends and not do any work for a couple of weeks. We need to reclaim this midwinter festival by thinking our way back to a time before it was corrupted by capitalism.
The biscuit-box image of Christmas is usually a Victorian one, with Dickensian characters in snowy city streets. But Victorian schmaltz will not do: I recommend a few hundred years further back to Medieval times.
Christmas in Medieval times was a time of misrule. This must have been a necessary counterbalance to the social order of the time, where your occupation gave you a place in a guild and so your identity was fairly tightly constrained. The twelve days of festivities were organised by the Lord of Misrule, a member of the community selected by lot who was allowed to turn all rules on their heads for the duration. I can only assume that the purpose of this was to give people a chance to let their hair down in a society that was otherwise fairly stifling. Something akin to the modern office party.
Further back again we can try to make out the outline of the pre-Christian festival. Because believers in the old religion of this land were burnt and tortured their wisdom has been dispersed but we can find a few traces in traditions we still enjoy. The burning yule log was a symbol that light had not disappeared at the darkest part of the year, and a promise that it would return. The word 'yule' apparently comes from a word for 'wheel', meaning the wheel of the year, that will continue to turn. If you burn a log as part of your festival remember that you can attach to it things you don't want to take into the new year with you, whether bad luck or bad character traits or habits.
Evergreen trees were of special significance because they continued to live in the dead time of the year. Holly was used to decorate the home because it kept bad spirits at bay, hence its association with 'holy'. Mistletoe was the most sacred of all. It still seems mysterious, with no roots in the ground, and maintains a bright green right through the winter. It was associated with death and rebirth and so had a central place at the midwinter festival.
So there are a few ideas to get you doing. Time to design your own festival. Time to reclaim the midwinter festival from the profiteers!
While celebrating your reclaimed festival with your low-consumption friends you will need some games to play to avoid the TV advertising. Ideas on this would be welcome. For a starter I propose Fetish, a game which involves trying to decide on the most pointless item that is being sold this Christmas. Bonus marks are available for items that needlessly produce carbon dioxide.


  1. I like this piece - there are lots of ways we can restore the sacred - thanks for reminding us.

  2. I don't know if this fits into the rules of "Fetish" but I personally hate the wasting energy fetish of doing your house up in millions of lights in the most garish, tasteless way possible.

    I'm not against decorations - but this habit really grates and must use vast amounts of energy.

  3. Thanks Jim. As an amateur Desmond Morris I find the habit of conspicuous lighting up of the house really fascinating. Isn't it a modernist version of the festival of lights that is traditional at this time of year. I must confess to finding them quite cheery in spite of their tastelessness. Can't argue about the CO2 though! There must be a better way!

  4. PS Who said the game of festish has any rules? Let's make them up as we go!

  5. The miniature clock collection magazine.