O Tannenbaum

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I was going to write something really original about Xmas but just as I began there was a knock at the door and some fellow (was his name Mr Porlock or something, I forget) interrupted my train of thought and… Well, suffice it to say you’ll have to wait for Xmas 2013 for my festive season originality.

Discovered this during the week (ignore the commentary, some of which is wrong, a better description is here). A remarkable and touching series of photos of a German couple from 1900 to 1945, recording their every Xmas together from just married to the death of the wife. Taken in the same room, with Xmas tree, and their presents to each other, every Xmas through those tumultuous German years, outside the room, and their own aging. The complete series sadly seems not to be online, only in a book published some years ago, but the eight available give a very good feel for a life evolving.

As Draaisma observes – “Each of the photographs has been taken on the same day of the year. But against the unvarying background, you notice the changing seasons in a human life all the more clearly. You see how gradual the changes are, though they can also be abrupt, life the first true day of spring every year or the morning when winter seems to have arrived. By moving forward exactly one year with each click of the self-timer, the Wagners demonstrate clearly that the aging process does not follow the even rhythm of the calendar.”

I guess Xmas in general does that for all of us, a series of fixed points at which we can picture ourselves in times past, growing up, then our children in turn, then our grandchildren. And conversely our parents and grandparents, seeing our youthful excitement will have been thinking back through their own lives, to their own childhoods. And so all the way back, through the mediaeval celebrations and legends of “St Nicolas”, through Roman “Saturnalia” and the like, to the various Solstice/mid-Winter pagan festivals which early christianity copied.

No point in being all Christmas carolly about Xmas. The photos of the Wagners show as much sadness as happiness. And all of us can probably remember Xmas events where the ambience was a little strained. You can after all choose friends for your New Year’s Eve guests, but you can’t choose your Xmas family members.

Anyway, apologies again for writing a Xmas post as original as a pair of socks for a present. Thank you all for sticking with this blog, and me, through another year with less than ideal ambience. And thank you all for the support you have shown me – a series of very welcome presents.

I hope the latest in your Xmas series is a good one. Picture Richard Wagner taking your photo.

And smile for the camera.

Happy Christmas!

When I use a word

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Every year, regular as clockwork, as stores play “White Xmas” for first time and begin selling mince pies, some conservative-religious-fanatic-populist-politician-radio-shockjock will begin complaining about the “War on Xmas”.

Complain (with complete lack of historical/linguistic knowledge) about saying Xmas instead of Christmas, complain about “Happy holiday” instead of “Happy Xmas”, complain about lack of (totally invented) “nativity” scenes, and so on.

Some of this, most of this, is culture war stuff. Religious and political conservatives seeking stick to beat progressives, determined to impose their will and world view on society. But some, to be charitable in this season of goodwill, is a complete absence of any historical sense, and an inability to recognise the role of personal development in apparently rock solid core values. You know how your popular music tastes are formed by the music that is, well, popular in your teenage years? Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Beatles, Lady GaGa (heaven help us) will forever remain the yardstick by which you judge all the music that pre- and post-dates your period.

Same with Xmas. Your memories of the pleasures of childhood, your childhood, Xmas will remain etched in your brain as the sine qua non of all Xmases past present and future. The slightest deviation from that golden mean, just like the arrival of the Beatles (more popular of course than Christmas) heralded the death of Presleyesque Rock and Roll, means the pagans, the atheists, are out to destroy the one and only true spirit of Xmas past.

But this is also true in a more general sense. We think of Xmas, of course, as essentially the Xmas of our lifetimes, and our parent’s lifetimes, the Xmas, in fact of the twentieth century, of, for many of us, Dear old Blighty, The Mother Country, England. A Xmas unchanged and unchanging until, as the culture warriors see it, those militant atheists spoiled it for everyone – the end of Xmas as we know it.

Absolute nonsense of course, it has changed, been changed, added to, amalgamated, combined, modified, ever since the decision, many thousands, probably at least 10,000 years, ago, to begin celebrating the winter solstice. The depth of winter in the northern hemisphere, time to hope that the Sun was once again on its way back, and the happy days of Spring would one day be here again.

You know all the rest don’t you, pagan rituals, mistletoe, Saturnalia, adopted by christians to fit an imaginary story, St Nicholas, Queen Victoria, German trees, Charles Dickens, Coca Cola? Suffice it to say that if xmas culture warriors like Barnaby Joyce or American Bill O’Reilly were transported back to any time prior to, say, 1830 in England (or indeed Scotland or Wales), or to Europe (or indeed any other continent) they would find Xmas unrecognisable. Similarly a medieval English or European peasant time travelling to Xmas 2011 would have no idea what was going on, would view the festivities as they would an alien spaceship.

To take just one example. My beloved Pickwick Papers is often rightly seen as the book that began the trend towards the modern Xmas we see now. But if you read the Xmas scenes, this is a celebration by a rich landowner and his family with a visit by a group of rich unemployed middleclass travellers. The great mass of the population of England, peasants and poor, weren’t celebrating like this. They were lucky to get Xmas Day as a holiday at all. They never had celebrated it much other than by attending church on an extra day. The lords and ladies had always had solstice celebrations (nobless oblige us every one), but it wasn’t for the likes of you and me. Even after Pickwick Papers, the Xmas celebration was more popularised by Queen Victoria, and her German Consort introduced Germanic elements like trees and ornaments etc, and it remained very much an upper classes celebration.

Then other elements were added for commercial reasons – the food, the Xmas cards, ornaments, presents, indeed “Father Xmas” himself. And eventually, slowly and gradually, we got to the “traditional Xmas” in its current form some time after the second world war, the time that the culture warriors remember. Oh and “Xmas taking the Christ out of Christmas” (devilishly clever these culture warriors)? Fraid not, it is a very old religious abbreviation, the “X” actually being the Chi used as first letter abbreviation of Christ in Greek going way way back to the early church.

All sound familiar? Yes, you got it, it’s very very similar to the same-sex-marriage-war-on-marriage line pushed by many of the same cultural warriors who are dying in the ditch to keep Coca Cola Christmas as it ever was. “Traditional marriage” has about the same pedigree as “Traditional Xmas”. Proper registration of marriages only came in in England in 1837. Up until then it was the province of individual parishes. And the concept of people getting “formally married”, unless you were a member of royalty or aristocracy, with alliances to seal, land to inherit, was pretty hit and miss before about the eighteenth century. Peasants either married informally, or didn’t marry at all, children were christened or not or in batches. And the “nuclear family” was pretty much an invention of the post-war world. And all of that even without considering “marriage” customs in Australia or Africa and so on, all considerably different to what we have now. So, quite frankly, when people talk about marriage as an ancient institution they are talking ignorant bullshit.

Atheists can’t celebrate the festive season and gays can’t get married because some hard-faced men who look as if they have done well out of the culture wars have defined what those things are? Get over yourselves. Looking at you Barnaby.

Anyway, to all my blog readers and twitter followers, wherever you are, and whatever your marital state, have a great end-of-the-year-politically-correct-happy-holiday with family and community.

And as George Grossmith said “I am a poor man but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning.”

Green Christmas

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Spent much of the last ten years dreaming of a green Christmas, and now, well, be careful what you wish for I say, because I would probably be happier with a little less high green pasture, so high that not only are sheep invisible but the horses occasionally disappear from view. You need more stock, said my bush fire brigade friend, as he nervously looked at my pasture a week ago, which is all very well but a year ago I didn’t have enough feed for the stock I had then, and now those same stock are overwhelmed by it – couldn’t eat what is there in a thousand years. And next year? Who knows. Does the La Nina continue, or do we swing back into the dreaded El Nino, while all the time average global temperatures keep rising and rising. Always been tough to be a farmer, predicting a year ahead what conditions would be like, what demand there would be, going to get tougher.

You can’t really go past Christmas Day as the best day of the year, can you. Especially if, by good luck or judgement, you manage to be in a household where young children are starring in the celebrations. The form of the celebrations we now have are themselves surprisingly young, dating back only 150 years or so, and owing a great deal to Charles Dickens and Prince Albert, Queen Consort. Prior to that there had been much frowning on Christmas by puritans in England and America, with celebrations banned by the evangelicals of their day.

But much further back Christmas began as a mid-Winter celebration at solstice time. A feeling of relief, no doubt, that from the shortest day on the days would get longer again, and you were past the mid way point and were headed for Spring. A chance no doubt to have a decent feed by putting together whatever delicacies could be found to contrast with the dried and preserved scanty rations that were getting you through the snowy winter. In Australia it is the opposite, the height of summer and the longest day being a promise that more pleasant days of Autumn are not totally out of reach.

Oh of course it is over commercialised these days. Almost as if the post Christmas sales are a more important celebration than the day itself. And far too much, for my taste, whizz bangery electronic gear, bah humbug. Back in my day stockings were filled, as much as financial circumstances permitted, with actual solid toys – trains and cars and lead toy soldiers and board games and books books books – even occasionally home made toys, hard to imagine as that might be at Christmas 2010. But never mind. The nature of gifts has changed a great deal over the last 150 years, will no doubt keep on changing into the future. What is important is the giving itself, and the pleasure of seeing the receiving, and the even greater importance of good companionship with family and friends.

If you are travelling in the holidays then travel carefully, come back safely. If you have friends or relatives coming, then have a good time eating, drinking and laughing loudly. If you are doing neither then sit back, relax, watch some cricket on tv, with beer, or good cold white wine in hand.

And Merry Christmas everyone.

Hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness

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To all my friends, readers, subscribers, occasional visitors, supporters, critics, wherever you are around the world, may you all have a Pickwickian Xmas full of good company, good food, and good cheer. May you receive a warm and cordial reception, wherever you go – and may the very servants grin with pleasure at the sight of you; may the hot elder wine, well qualified with brandy and spice, go round and round and round again; and may there be not too many mince pies left for the fat boy the next day. Oh, and may your sleep be sound, and the dreams be pleasant, on the evening of Xmas Day.