So it’s finally all over. Pack away the tinsel, take your unwanted gifts to the charity shops, force that last sliver of turkey down your exhausted gullet – Christmas is survived for another year. Let me not beat about the Tannenbaum: I am relieved.
This declaration will come as little surprise to those of my familial circle who have, for many years now, dismissed my yuletide grumbles as those of a “Scrooge”. But if the truth be known: I do not actually dislike Christmas. What I dislike is the pressure to like Christmas, the pressure to agree that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year” or else face social chastisement as the most mean-spirited party-pooper since a bunch of boring generals ordered their troops to stop playing football with the chaps in the opposing trenches and get on with shooting them instead. Yet no matter how many icons of pop will don a hilarious knitted jumper and sing about how happy the inaccurate commemoration of the birth of a possible deity makes them, I cannot accept that Christmas is an undeniably “good” time of year. Nothing is wholly “good”, and our modern Christmas celebrations are more confusingly ambiguous in their relative “good” and “badness” than most events.
Certainly, the time off from work, the mountainous piles of food, the presents, the TV specials, the music (with the exception of anything by Cliff Richard), the company – these are all good. That is assuming you do get time off work, or have work to get time off from, and assuming you can afford food and presents, and assuming a power-cut doesn’t blacken the TV screen, and assuming you have someone or ones by way of company (who isn’t Cliff Richard). Yet even assuming all these blessings count as normalities in your life; I still do not understand why so much pressure is heaped upon Christmas to the point where it inevitably implodes in a soft puff of disappointment. It is after all a festival whose religious basis only a minority of celebrants actually believe in and whose symbol of an obese coke-swilling house-breaker with the parenting advice of rewarding good behaviour with material gain undermines rather than shores up the “Christmas spirit”, drives us to max out our credit cards, thus exacerbating the nation’s debt crisis, and probably bears a lot of responsibility for the fact that the principle of doing something for nothing can be hard to find.
I myself recognise no truth in the festival’s Christian inspiration, not being of that faith. I also however find little solace in its modern manifestation, namely a nigh-on-narcissistic overindulgence in the cause of self-gratification. I might, were this matched by an equally determined effort to live up to the (yes, Christian-inspired) spirits of Peace, Love and Goodwill, in whose names we feast and carouse and shop, but which we, or perhaps more truthfully said – I – actually do very little to transform into reality. Which is my most important, most un-Scroogelike reason for expressing dislike for Christmas, simply: I have failed, at every previous Christmas in my life, to be sufficiently good. Which given that I have spared no efforts in condemning all that is wrong about Christmas, or in enjoying its food and presents and non-Cliff Richard music, makes me a rather awful hypocrite.
I have in the past several times made threats to spend the subsequent winter doing something worthwhile; empty threats along the lines of “I’ve had enough of this – next Christmas I’m going away to be with elephants!”
2013 however was my year for trying new things. Things I’d never dreamed of doing, and things I’ve always wanted to do but have never had the courage or energy to attempt. So, over the past year I have learnt to play the ukulele, become a vegan, and made my first efforts at artistic expression since secondary school. I’ve tested my nerves at speed dating, at an open audition, and by giving a speech at Hyde Park Corner. I’ve appeared on local radio. I’ve pole danced, Zumba danced, tango danced and tap danced. I’ve climbed a mountain, and crewed on a tall ship. What I am most proud of however, what in retrospect is the most satisfying and unexpected outcome of this past year, is that I’ve used my challenge to occasionally be of some use to other people and the world which I have hitherto leeched off but not substantially contributed to. I volunteered for the poppy appeal and for local nature conservation. I’ve raised over £1200 for charity by trekking Ben Nevis and running through Oxford in a Santa suit.
And finally, as a consequence of these happy experiences, I’ve made a commitment to regularly volunteer at a local homeless shelter. For just over a month now I have been trotting along every weekend to provide tea, coffee, soup, sandwiches and company for a couple of hours of an afternoon to Oxford’s homeless. When I realised that the shelter was open over the Christmas period, I saw my opportunity to for the first time do something worthwhile in this big, empty, lazy week that ends our year – and to finally do as I preach. So Christmas Eve and Boxing Day found me doling out food and drink, and being humbled by the Christmasses others were enduring and uplifted by new friendships formed.
I can still ‘Bah-Humbug’ my way through the excesses of Christmas day. But at least this year, instead of just commentating on and condemning the world about me, I actually went out into it; and thereby learnt some surprising things about what this Cynic is capable and incapable of – and about what makes her happy. Which is, in essence, what this whole year’s challenge has been about, really. A challenge which I declare to be, with this blog, complete.
Happy new year everybody, and thank you all so much for reading.