Teenage Christmas Angst — The Scales Drop Off.

26 Nov

On December 25th, 1967, I just walked the wintry streets all day. For company I had a small, close-knit group of friends. For sustenance I had a small Tupperware box of vegetables in cheese sauce, kindly donated by my sister and pushed into my hands as I left the house. So what on earth had happened? Had I been rejected by my parents? Why wasn’t I with my family, exchanging presents and pulling crackers in the warmth of the house? Why wasn’t I looking forward to the richest, tastiest meal of the year?

Well, I had not been disowned. It was MY decision to go out all day and brave the December weather. I was in my late teens and I had been doing a lot of hard thinking. Once I had realized that my parents’  lifestyle and opinons were not set in concrete, I hastened to develop my own independent ideas. This incredibly had led me to reject several key components of our traditional family Christmas which had previously given me so much enjoyment as a child. By 1967, aged 17, I was determined to boycott much of it. To the bemusement of my well-meaning but long-suffering parents, I swapped the cosy but claustrophobic Christmas at home for the cold freedom of the streets. My friends and I forsook our lavish Christmas dinners for a small snack in a damp park. We did this because we wanted to show that one didn’t have to follow the diktats of tradition. It was possible to wriggle out of the straight-jacket and do something different.

We pretentiously read poetry to each other, imagining we were Allan Ginsberg- like rebels. OK, we were nothing like the Beat Poets of 10 years earlier but we did empathise with them to a certain extent, as we too felt beaten down by the conventialities of society ( I believe that’s how the “Beat Movement” got its name.). Unlike James Dean however, we were rebels WITH a cause. We wanted to expose the less acceptable aspects of Christmas in our opinion.  We no longer viewed the festival through rose-coloured spectacles, but in a newer, harsher light. To use another analogy, the scales were dropping off. Here are the reasons why.

[Don’t get me wrong. My parents were ( and still are) loving and generous. They organised many wonderful Christmases for me as a child. ( see last blog: “Childhood Christmas.”) However, as I grew up, I came under different influences through school, friends and books. I came to realize that there were alternative ways of looking at things.]

The first scale to drop away was the beguiling but totally fictitious myth of Santa Claus or Father Christmas. To the youngster, the idea of a kind, jolly old man,  riding a reindeer- pulled sleigh across the sky and popping presents into the stockings of every child in the world, is one of the highlights, if not THE highlight of Christmas. To the young, the presents appear on Christmas morning as if by a miracle. However it is all based on a “white lie”. The untruth is told for the best possible reasons but once a child discovers the truth, then a lot of the “magic” of Christmas instantly evaporates. It’s such a disappointment and an anti-climax to find out that it is your own parents who are delivering the presents, drinking Santa’s sherry and eating Rudolph’s carrot. It’s still nice receiving gifts but the magical aura previously surrounding them has now largely disappeared. Later on, I was to discover that Father Christmas or St Nicholas actually came not from Lapland but from Turkey, a country that does not have reindeers or elves! In fact, much of the myth of Santa Claus was developed relatively recently in the United States and Santa’s mythical clothes were changed from grey to red to suit Coca Cola who thought the brighter colour would look better in their adverts. So much for the innocent “magic” of a young child’s Christmas!

The next “scale” to drop off was the religious one. Christmas has become increasingly secular in recent years anyway but in the 60’s the Christian story of Jesus’s birth was still widely promoted and accepted, especially in our family who were devout and regular church goers. However, as I went through my teens I became increasingly suspicious of several aspects of the Nativity story, which had always been sold to me as the “Gospel Truth”. Did I really believe that Mary was impregnated by Immaculate Conception? Did I accept that Joseph, when he found out that his fiancee was pregnant, just took it in his stride and went along with the incredible, unprecedented idea that she was having God’s child? Did I really believe in choirs of angels singing in the sky or that 3 Wise men or Kings would travel a great distance to give precious gifts to a poor baby born in an obscure stable in a provincial town? It all makes a cracking story because it is so unusual but once cynicism entered my thought- processes I began to doubt its veracity. The story, accepted without question by my chapel- going parents, was about as believable as your average fairy tale. Also, I thought, why did the 3rd “Wise man” give Myrrh to a new-born baby, when this sweet smelling incense was most commonly used on dead bodies? It’s hardly appropriate I think unless you are a Christian looking for a significant symbol of Christ’s premature death.

As I grew older I came to realize that many other people also did not believe in or ascribe any importance to the nativity story. What about all the Hindus, Muslims, Sihks, Buddhists and even the Jews? Why were they not celebrating the birth of the “Son of God”? What about the athiests who did not believe in God or the agnostics who were not sure? Were they all wrong and only the Christians right? My parents would say it is a question of faith and that a true believer does not require proof. However, my doubting mind couldn’t help noticing that many more people did not believe and had no faith in this “earth-shattering” event than actually did!

Thus, despite the romanticism of the story and the beauty of the carols, I came to reject the Christian aspect of Christmas. Later, my cynicism increased when I learnt that the Church had hi-jacked the pagan midwinter festival of light. [ where people appealed to their gods for the coming of Spring, of light, warmth and of re-birth when all seemed dead and and dark in the midst of winter]. The Christian church supplanted this and adapted it for their own ends, pretending it was their festival all along. Later still, through my research as an RE teacher, I found out that historical records point to Jesus actually being born in September! So by late adolescense I had lost my faith in the Bible’s Christmas story. I did not want to go to church and hear it all again, so I took to the streets.

Another issue that forced me out into the cold was my growing awareness of the amount of poverty, famine and inequality there was in the world. I know that Christmas in the West is supposed to be a time for thinking of others less fortunate than ourselves. I whole-heartedly agree with this. The idea is constantly repeated in school assemblies and church sermons throughout the land. Businesses and celebrities adopt certain charities. The media looks for heart- warming stories of people helping in soup kitchens and temporary hostels for the homeless being set up. All this is very good. As a child I enjoyed giving as well as receiving gifts at Christmas. But I came to realize that many, if not most, of peoples’ presents were being given, not to the poor, but to people who already had a lot. How many times have you heard the question: “What can you buy for the man/woman/child who has everything?” In fact older relatives in my experience, often get so exasperated about trying to think of something to give to a child who already owns lots of toys, books, clothes, games etc., that they admit defeat and simply hand over the money!

I became more aware of this as the 1960’s rolled on .It seemed to me that Christmas was mainly becoming an orgy of materialism. This has grown a lot worse since then. Slick advertising persuades people ( especially children) that they have to have certain things or they will be missing out. Imagine being the only person in your class or on your street who doesn’t own a Kindle or a Smartphone! Poorer parents often stack up their credit cards and push themselves into debt to buy the required items for their children. By 17 I was already aware of excessive consumerism in our society, with Christmas being the time when it reached its grand crescendo. The shops were packed throughout December and there was a frenzy of frantic buying. This is still the case today with the Internet also joining in the “fun”. Postmen and women exhaust themselves delivering constant parcels to people’s doors.

On top of all this, the thought of starving people in famine- struck Africa and elsewhere, started to put me off my massive Christmas dinner, not to mention all those mince pies, cake and chocolates. I realize that much of this hand-wringing and moralising must sound terribly pompous and boring after a while. I admit I was like that as a teenager, constantly angsting as I  set out my ethical “stall”. I can still be like that today. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful to my kind and generous parents and I am not advocating that everyone should have a serious and miserable time at Christmas. But ( yes — there’s always a “but”) I could not and cannot ignore poverty, inequality and starvation in the world. At the time this made me much less inclined to eat, drink and be merry. It was the extravagent excess of Christmas that brought this reaction out of me.

The final and probably the biggest factor that made me so disillutioned with Christmas was my conversion to vegetarianism. Don’t worry, I am not going to explain this in detail again as it is covered in previous blogs.( cf — “How My Grandfather Turned me Into a Vegetarian.”) Suffice to say that my” Saul on the Road to Damacus” moment was seeing my Grandad’s slaughtered chicken lying lifelessly on our work top, its broken neck hanging at an awkward angle away from its body. My father thought he was being kind when he asked me if I would like to help pluck the feathers off and remove the giblets. At 17 he probably thought I was old enough to be able to do this “man’s” work. To his surprise though, his offer had the exact opposite effect to that intended. Instead of stepping forward to assist in this important job, I shrank away in disgust! Inside my mind I heard a distinct click — it was the “penny” dropping. Or you could say it was another scale disappearing from my eyes. Previously I had thought of our Christmas bird as a delicious piece of food and a special treat. Now I saw it for what it really was — a creature that had had its life prematurely snuffed out so that we could consume its flesh. In a previous post I have noted the irony of celebrating a birth (of Jesus) through a death. ( of the chicken.) This has sadly got to be multiplied millions of times every December as enormous numbers of  birds — chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese — are slaughtered on an industrial scale so people can stuff themselves at Christmas. I suddenly felt this very strongly and refused to eat that poor creature and have never knowingly eaten meat since. It’s no surprise that I felt compelled to go out all day as I wanted to take no part in something that I strongly disagreed with. Christmas has been a difficult time for me ever since.

Those rebellious years of teenage tantrums and walk- outs have now long gone and I have calmed down a lot.( thank goodness!) I have allowed myself to enjoy the numerous aspects of the Christmas festival which are harmless and pleasurable. This was especially so when I had my own family  and my first wife and I recreated the magical Christmases we had both enjoyed as children. I hope our 2 daughters and son enjoyed them too. Yet, I have never been back to Christmas morning church services after all those years of being forced to go. The nearest I got to this was a candle-lit carol service in Hexham Abbey, Northumberland. It was beautiful and atmospheric but extremely cold!  What’s more –I have retained that uncomfortable feeling about the explosion of consurism and over- indulgence that Christmas always seems to trigger. It goes without saying that I remain repelled by the mass killing of animals and birds simply to fill peoples’ stomachs. Last but not least, I am still enough of a rebel to want to fight against the constrictions of tradition. Why should I be forced to do exactly the same things as everyone else at exactly the same time? I know its an important bonding mechanism for the family and for the nation as a whole, but the James Dean in me still finds it pretty oppressive and I want to break out! It’s enough to make me want to go for a very long walk, or read a book of pretentious poetry! Amen.

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One Response to “Teenage Christmas Angst — The Scales Drop Off.”

  1. scrapstu1949 December 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    My friend Vic has pointed out to me that there are striking similarities between the nativity story of the birth of Christ and the birth story of Mithras. Worship of Mithras was just as popular as Christianity in the early years AD, but died away after a few centuries. This “coincidence” suggests that the well known nativity story of the stable, the shepherds , angels and Wise men may not be as special and original as Christians like to think. Vic also says there were similarities with the birth stories of gods of Ancient Greece. Well, well, well!

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