Euan McColm: Clichéd to be cynical at Christmas

Shake off the Scrooges this Christmas? Picture: TSPL
Shake off the Scrooges this Christmas? Picture: TSPL
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IT SEEMS to start earlier every year, doesn’t it? We’ve barely got Halloween out of the way before they’re shoving it in our faces.

Shops sparkle with tinsel and fairy lights, staff canteens (those few that still exist, anyway) dish up bone dry turkey and squish-em-flat sprouts, and pubs stick Fairytale of New York on repeat.

And then, just when things are absolutely perfect, along they come to ruin it, with their boring, boring cynicism. To these men (and they are almost always men), Christmas creates a two-month window during which they may rage against commercialisation, fulminate over neglect of the Christian message, and girn about when shop windows are dressed. The very fact of Christmas’s existence seems enough to trigger expressions of the bitterest nostalgia.

This year, the festive naysayers had a new wise man in former Labour home secretary David Blunkett, who told us he was “saddened” that the “true meaning” of Christmas had been lost.

Predictably, Blunkett remembered the simpler Christmasses of his childhood. As with pop music and films, Yules of yore were always much better, according to a particular type of bore.

What’s more, we’ve all forgotten about those who don’t have people to celebrate with. We are, according to the Labour MP, anyway, crueller people than we used to be.

This pre-Christmas Christmas backlash is nothing new. I don’t recall a time when the festive season didn’t begin with a chorus of complaints.

Like many people, when I’m angry or confused, I seek the wisdom of poets. Through their words, we might find some clarity. In this instance, I find myself turning to one of England’s greatest, Nigel Blackwell.

Blackwell, whose wisdom becomes song when he fronts the band Half Man Half Biscuit, captures my feelings precisely with his powerful work It’s clichéd to be cynical at Christmas, which begins wearily with the rhetorical question: “Now how did I guess you were going to express your disdain...?”

How succinctly Blackwell describes the studied ennui required to convincingly deliver a festive jeremiad: “You don’t have a tree, and your smile has a fee, all the same, here’s a card for your boring facade.”

And it must be a facade, mustn’t it? Nobody can be immune to the joy of Christmas without trying very hard indeed, can they?

The most serious complaint would appear to be that we have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. I don’t believe we have. For the Christian faithful, the story of Jesus remains central to the festival, but others – whether of different religions or none – join in in spirit. The important messages, about supporting others, about family, and about community, aren’t forgotten. Not as far as I can see.

Next week, I – a stinking atheist and yuletide bandwagon jumper – will wipe away tears as my five-year-old daughter (who’s yet to fully explore matters theological) participates in her school’s nativity play, in which I expect her performance of the part of easily distracted angel to be a tour de force.

Will this bring me closer to Christ? No. But it will bring me and parents from strikingly different parts of Glasgow together in celebration of our kids, and how they’re working and growing together. On a dark, winter afternoon, we’ll feel the light of community. It will be joyous and that rush will sustain long after we leave the assembly hall. You may not have an in on a nativity play, I know, but a similar feeling of togetherness can be generated at a carol concert. There are loads on, the songs are great, and they don’t ask at the door if you believe.

The accusation that Christmas has become too commercialised has been levelled for as long as I can remember.

In the early 1970s, it was never enough to receive an Evel Knievel canyon-jumping contraption. One had also to know that 20 years previously, a good Christmas stocking contained only a couple of tangerines and, perhaps, a small wooden horse. But this discrepancy can be just as easily explained by advances in plastic injection moulding in the toy industry as it can by some notion that we’re more selfish.

That the financial aspect of Christmas is stressful for many parents (and, believe me, I know) is not in doubt, but the festive season is alive with good work being done by charities, by churches, and by schools, all raising funds for those in need, all trying to include those who are struggling. The existence of food banks reminds us of the shocking poverty in which some Scots live but it also reminds us of the compassion of people.

As for the complaint that the Christmas build-up starts too early, I can only say the earlier the better.

The gloom of winter saps us. We go to work in the dark and we come home in the dark. We freeze and we shiver and we wait for buses that never come. We remember, ten minutes too late, that these shoes are not actually waterproof.

Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to inject some sparkle, some romance, some magic, into this miserable season?

String tinsel where you can, hang lights from every corner, gorge yourself on Celebrations and Miniature Heroes, those sweets that can make even a man of (a perfectly acceptable thank you very much) 5’7” feel like a giant.

There are 17 whinging days left until Christmas. Unless you are very lucky indeed, you’ll hear many more complaints about how we do this celebration before the day dawns.

The choice is yours. You can furrow your brow and join the chorus of disapproval. If you have the energy for that, then good luck to you. Or you can say no to Noel negativity and join me in singing the words of Nigel Blackwell:

“See how we yawn at your bile and your scorn

It’s a beautiful day, peace on Earth has been played

Make a noise with your toys and ignore the killjoys’

’Cos it’s clichéd to be cynical at Christmas.” «

Twitter: @euanmccolm