Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas nostalgia

With the Christmas season in full swing we are being bombarded with nostalgic images of log fires, steam trains and flickering candles. This is nothing new of course, in fact nostalgia definitely isn't what it used to be, but there is one particularly egregious example that caught my eye this year. It is an advert for some breakfast cereal and involves three blonde haired Midwych cuckoos who conspire to leave a bowl of breakfast cereal for a particularly creepy looking Father Christmas. The whole advert has a distinctly dated feel to it, to the extent that my daughter asked me if this was some advert from my childhood that they were rerunning.

Which got me to pondering why exactly Christmas is seen so much as a time for looking back into the past. Not that it can be that exclusively of course, since most of what the advertisers are trying to flog us in terms of presents to buy is distinguished by its newness: nostalgia would not seem appropriate when advertising a 50 inch 3D HD television for instance. But nostalgia, warm muted colours and an evocation of lost childhood still remain the predominant themes of advertising in this season.

Much of this is of course down to the dominance of US culture, with its emphasis on sentimentality and small-town family values. It's a Wonderful Life (which I love, by the way) exemplifies this perfectly, but so does the annual Coca Cola campaign. It all goes back to A visit from St Nicholas ("'twas the night before Christmas") written in 1823, even more than our own A Christmas Carol from 1843. The essence of the poem is an evocation of the magic of childhood and this has survived as probably the central element of the modern era Christmas, and is no doubt responsible for much of the sense of nostalgia.

However that is clearly not the only source of our association of Christmas with the past. Father Christmas (the English equivalent of the originally Dutch Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus) has long been depicted as an old man, and much of the symbolism of modern Christmas harks back to ancient times. The holly and ivy (as the carol reminds us) are plants whose symbolic power is rooted in the past. Indeed they hugely predate their appropriation for the Christmas story and evoke a long-lost pagan past.

In fact, on the subject of carols, Christmas is interesting as one of the few occasions that we still universally associate with seasonal songs. And whilst many of these songs are Victorian in origin (still quite a long time ago) many are far older, and almost all use very antiquated language. When else but at Christmas would most people use words like "hark" and "lo" and "ye" or syntax like "let nothing you dismay"?

And in fact the specifically English association of Christmas with times past goes a long way back- to the puritan era. The personification of Christmas became Father Christmas (and an old man) during the puritan clampdown on such festivities, and evoked the good old rip-roaring, drunken Christmases people remembered when they were young. As I said at the start, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

There's more to it than that too. Christianity has always been adept at highjacking pagan symbolism and Christmas is of course a reworking of winter solstice celebrations such as the Scandinavian Yule, and even of the Roman Saturnalia. The feasting, the emphasis on firelight and the bringing of the greenwood into the house all remain as central to our conception of Christmas and all hark back to long gone former times.

However, interesting as all this is, for me it doesn't get to the essence of why we associate Christmas with the past. The winter solstice (particularly in Northern regions where the day-length effect is most marked) has always been associate with looking both backwards into the old year and forward into the new. The Roman God Janus (from whom January is named) was famously double-faced to symbolise this. He was the God of (amongst other things) gateways and thresholds and the winter solstice has always been seen as a threshold between the past and the future, marking the final death of the old year's sun and the promised rebirth of the new.

However this is a massive concept and most societies appear to have separated out or extended the celebrations of death and rebirth symbolised by the season. Saturnalia, for instance, occupied the "left-over" days following the 12 30-day months of the Roman calendar and Yule was apparently traditionally three nights long.

In modern times we have the week from Christmas to New Year, and it does seem to me that, for all its central image of a birth, Christmas has taken on much of the looking back and New Year the looking forward elements of the winter solstice rituals. Perhaps the clearest way to see this is in a comparison of the symbolism of the two celebrations: where Christmas Day has log fires and candles, New Year has fireworks; where Christmas Day has hand-knitted jumpers and cosy slippers New Year has party dresses and impractically high-heeled shoes; where Christmas Day has slumping in front of the Queen's Speech New Year has partying into the small hours and first-footing; whilst New Year is universally "Happy", Christmas is often "Merry", a much more antiquated sounding word. Even the songs are different. Yes, we do sing Auld Lang Syne at New Year, but we bellow along to Prince's 1999 as well. No "Hark the herald angels" at New Year. And fundamentally New Year's Eve is an adult occasion, contrasting with the child-centred nature of Christmas.

So there you go. Like Janus we look both forwards and backwards over the Christmas/New Year season, and in my opinion that is just as it should be. A society develops the rituals and celebrations it needs to deal with the fundamental themes of life, like death and rebirth, like the inevitable progression from the past into the future. And if the price is having to endure a few saccharine-heavy nostalgia-laden adverts at this time, then does that really matter?

Merry Christmas, I say, and a happy New Year.

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