Is it Christmas again already? In one of my previous editorials, I wrote that "I love all of it, by which I suppose I mean its twin poles: the tatty and the austere. I love the story of the nativity. It has everything: the sudden drama (the donnée) of the annunciation; Joseph's dilemma; the suspense when they get to Nazareth and then a denouement in which the tiniest, most vulnerable person in the room is also the Deus ex machina. What a plot! But, then, I also love tinsel and bad Christmas television and those songs which, as I wrote elsewhere, sound to me like tills. I think it's partly to do with being brought up in the '70s. It was a dour decade, it's true, but every December was a kind of spring, with lights and Christmas annuals and decorations suddenly blossoming everywhere."
This is true, but only up to a point. Just as the essence of a Friday night is almost all in the anticipation, so Christmas is contained, for the most part, in the things we do when we lead up to it. Christmas never really comes. The feelings that you want to feel can't match a day that is, in essence, Sunday with added benefits. It withholds. It's not supposed to. It's supposed to do the opposite: to fill us, somehow, with all of the feelings that we desperately want to have. But how can it when the feelings are just that: things that we want to feel. The build-up, that long drum roll, is endlessly self-reinforcing but once you stop, once you're sitting round a table staring at a turkey with the people that you never feel, really, as though you've actually invited – that you can never not invite – you realise, or at least I do, that Christmas ended at about 10 o'clock that morning. Take away the anticipation and the rituals and what you're left with is an abstraction. The rituals, meanwhile, point only to themselves. Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Because we do. Why do we decorate the Christmas tree? Because we always have.
Don't get me wrong. I love it. But I'm always aware that, just under the surface, is an undercurrent of hysteria. According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, Father Christmas "incarnates the benevolent form of the authority of the ancients". But not just of the ancients, surely. Santa is your father but with all the worst bits siphoned out. In our house, my brother and I worked furiously to believe that what we were experiencing was a family occasion, but to the nth degree. Everything was dialled up to ten. Just for that morning, the house didn't rest on the fragile shoulders of our mum and dad. Dad, we knew, would not be going to the pub because, in some mysterious sense, Christmas contained him. He was – or, at least, he would try to be – his very best self. Christmas would see to that. It would burnish all of us. It would be the temporal equivalent of one of those snow globes: beautiful but fragile. And the gifts? They were Christmas's imprimatur. They rubber-stamped the day. Of course, the natural corollary of this is that this is the way things have to be. Put one foot wrong and it's as though you've just kicked Christmas in the face. You think that you're enjoying yourself but, really, you're on tenterhooks. Christmas isn't carrying anything. You are.
For me, a Dickensian Christmas is the epitome of the season, but not for the reasons you'd expect: not because of the outbursts of kindness and generosity that can make you feel that even the children are a little drunk. No, it's the apex of what I insist on calling Christmasness (Christmassyness?) because you can feel how very hard Dickens is willing it into existence. Dickens' childhood? You all know it. A sensitive boy put out to work while the rest of his family lived, together, in a debtors' prison. Dickens' Christmasses are the best example you can find of what we all do: try, as furiously as we can, to make the world feel briefly the right side up. Listen to this:
"The Grocers'! Oh, the Grocers'! Nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose."
It's too much – way too much – but that's the point. How can you come up with a counter-argument when you are overwhelmed by so much detail? My favourite bit is "in the best humour possible". That little phrase is working terribly hard. And it reminds me of what Christmas shopping is: it's work. What makes this passage so persuasive is that Dickens wants it so desperately to be true. I like him more because of this but I like Christmas a little less. If it was easier he wouldn't have to try so hard. It's the same with Disney, except that Disney has a much colder eye. Dickens wants your heart, but Disney wants your wallet. He gives us exactly what he thinks we think we want but, in that irritatingly synergistic way of all consumer capitalism, we feel as though he is supplying a need. Which he is, I suppose. By reflecting our dreams back at us he confirms us in our desire for them. (The fact that he often confirms the cheapness of them is neither here nor there.) In the difference between us and the life we long to live lies all the power of a Dickens or a Disney Christmas.
By which I know I mean a secular Christmas. I have tried the other. I have sat, with a full bladder, at the back of the church during Midnight Mass. And, yes, as a story the Nativity certainly beats A Christmas Carol. (But only just.) You can, I expect, hear the tone of defensive, slightly hostile levity. It's because I'm jealous. I wish I believed, for all sorts of reasons, that Jesus was the son of God, but one of the most prominent reasons is that it would make sense of Christmas. Christmas is like one of those deconsecrated churches that have been turned into a gallery and a cafeteria. It's a beautiful place to visit – you can spend hours soaking it up – but your footprints do end up sounding a little hollow. It's not designed for what we think it's there for. It's bigger, more austere, than we care to admit.
Still. Make the most of it. Seriously. Because what else have we got? Go out and fill your boots, I say. Drink eggnog. Buy extravagant gifts. Wassail, whatever wassailing is. Just wear it as lightly as you can. It's a dream, people. A lovely dream, but a dream nonetheless. This year I will try to be a little more aware that, after the 26th, I will end up (in new socks no doubt, and clutching a Marks and Spencer's voucher) beached on the hard strand of the morning.
In the meantime, you could do worse than clutch this. You can't, of course (we've almost got over our desire to be in print), but what you can do is savour the astonishing, expert, engaging, moving work of the following people: Paul McCartney, Fran Lock, David Harsent, Jo Balmer, Nick Coleman, Steve Shepherd, Anne Carson, Louise Peterkin, Simon Armitage, Maggie Sawkins, Jackie Kay, Ben Morgan, Mark Russell, Nan Goldin, Tom McRae, Chris Rice, Sean O'Brien, Zoë Green, Ian Duhig, Madeleine Waller, The Soul Duo (featured on the website of the inimitable Mr Bongo), Jane Zwart, Philippe Jacottet (translated by John Taylor), Pratibha Castle, Evie Calver, Michael Farry, John Eccleston, Bruce Bromley, Sue Finch, Jenny Mitchell, Rosie Jackson, Oz Hardwick, Lily Thomson, Alison Jones, Angela France, P.W. Bridgman, Michelle Diaz, Marilyn Francis, Peter Moore, Sharon Salzberg and Noah Rasheta. Once again, I'm sure that they would all want to join me in wishing you a happy Christmas and a safe new year.
Alan Humm's The Sparkler, a novel about Charles Dickens, is out next year.