Sunday, December 04, 2016

`It Is a Debauch'

Christmas, of course, was invented about 180 years ago by Charles Dickens, and not in A Christmas Carol (1843). No, the honor goes to Chap. XXVIII, “A Good-Humoured Christmas Chapter,” of The Pickwick Papers (1837), a work superior to Scrooge’s morality tale:

“. . . numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!”

Dickens here represents the Platonic ideal of Christmas, the impossible template against which all subsequent Yuletide celebrations have been measured and found wanting. Just as Mark Twain blamed the Civil War on Walter Scott, we can blame Christmas on Dickens. Indeed, Christmas might be usefully likened to a species of medieval combat – with fellow shoppers and drivers and, with particular mercilessness, family.  One doesn’t customarily think of George Orwell as a pudding-and-mistletoe sort of guy, but he possessed at least a cultural appreciation of Christmas. Though he goes overboard in the postwar guilt department, on the whole, little more than three years before his death, he offers a realistic appraisal of the midwinter holiday:

“The only reasonable motive for not overeating at Christmas would be that somebody else needs the food more than you do. A deliberately austere Christmas would be an absurdity. The whole point of Christmas is that it is a debauch—as it was probably long before the birth of Christ was arbitrarily fixed at that date.”

This is a healthy-minded and generous secular understanding of the holiday. Christmas ought to be a sort of blowout, but humans being humans, blowouts have a way of turning into trips to the emergency room or police station:

“Children know this very well. From their point of view Christmas is not a day of temperate enjoyment, but of fierce pleasures which they are quite willing to pay for with a certain amount of pain. The awakening at about 4 a.m. to inspect your stockings; the quarrels over toys all through the morning, and the exciting whiffs of mincemeat and sage-and-onions escaping from the kitchen door; the battle with enormous platefuls of turkey, and the pulling of the wishbone; the darkening of the windows and the entry of the flaming plum pudding; the hurry to make sure that everyone has a piece on his plate while the brandy is still alight; the momentary panic when it is rumoured that Baby has swallowed the threepenny bit; the stupor all through the afternoon; the Christmas cake with almond icing an inch thick; the peevishness next morning and the castor oil on December 27th—it is an up-and-down business, by no means all pleasant, but well worth while for the sake of its more dramatic moments.”

This essay and a few others have a way of humanizing Orwell, turning him into just another slob, like us.

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