The Christmas period seems a good time of year to ponder how hard some old traditions can die, even when they cease to be particularly representative or functional or connected to contemporary reality. At the same time, we can see new ones developing, which might tell us something about changing times.
I heard it suggested recently that the ‘traditional’ (for northern Europe) attachment to a ‘white Christmas’ is a hangup from the odd climatic blip that was the Little Ice Age. Beginning any time between the thirteenth and the seventeenth centuries, much of the world, but particularly the northern hemisphere, grew noticeably colder. Pack ice advanced, temperatures went down and winters were colder and harder. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the world warmed again – possibly due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of industrialisation.
The impacts of the Little Ice Age were felt all over the world. Here in Europe, it coincided with the development of mass communication. Industrial society spawned newspapers, novels (along with societies literate enough to read them in numbers), telegrams: the beginnings of a self-conscious mass culture – the beginnings, indeed, of a concept of ‘the mass’. Marx and Engels wrote their manifesto in 1848, five years after Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, which has done perhaps more than anything else to cement our current sentimental and nostalgic view of what Christmas should be – a vision which commercial globalisation has now multiplied all around the world.
Snow on the cobbled streets; robins freezing in the icy wind; prize turkeys in the butcher’s window; spruce trees twinkling behind lighted windows; toboggans; men in top hats. This is the cultural mythology that encrusts Christmas in my country, and it’s how commerce has manufactured and sold Christmas all over the world – so successfully that in Australia this weekend they will be eating roast turkey in thirty degree heat with artificial snow on their windowsills and pictures on their Christmas cards of a Greek saint dressed up for a trip to Finland.
It is an appealing image, to me anyway, but it appears to be one that has been frozen in time due to a strange confluence of factors, not the least of them being a bestselling book which caught the public imagination. In essence, a passing climatic phenomenon was presented as an unchanging seasonal reality through the medium of popular literature.
Until recently, this was not the kind of Christmas many people experienced, at least here in Britain. For the last couple of years, however, our traditional grey Christmas has been replaced in many parts of the country by a white one. We’ve had snow all over the ground on Christmas day, logs on the fire, sweet coal smoke belching from cottage chimneys (confession: I love the smell of coal smoke) and other such Dickensian things. Ironically, it could be that this apparent return to form is itself a sign of climatic variation, this one related to all that sweet-smelling smoke.
I wonder how the media reacted to the cold winters in the age of Dickens and Marx? Can the reaction have been as asinine, cynical and heartless as it is now? Here’s half the country, blanketed in beautiful, silent snow, and we are being treated to a raging torrent of headlines about ‘chaos’ ‘disgrace’ and ‘horror’ The story currently playing out in the media here is one of ‘travel chaos’ – and it’s fascinating to me that travel is the central focus.. People can’t drive everywhere they would like to as quickly as they want. Heathrow airport – horror of horrors – is shut. People are waiting around, missing flights, sleeping on benches. This, I heard one angry passenger say on the radio today, has rendered the place ‘like a warzone’.
No. No, it is not like a warzone. It is not even like a conflict zone, or even like a fight in a pub car park, and if you can use language like that to describe your inconvenience and irritation you have lost all sense of perspective. But this is how people react in this country now when their travel plans are inconvenienced. I see this when I walk down the street. Men in cars angrily revving and swearing when the tyres skid. People moaning about the ice on the pavements. Everypone gearing up to blame somebody – the council, the airport authority, the government – for the fact that we live in a world we do not control and whose natural impacts we cannot be sheltered from every minute of every day. Is this a new Christmas tradition – raging at Nature when it doesn’t play ball?
Perhaps, but it highlights one genuinely new Christmas tradition – the getaway. In the last few decades, Christmas in Britain and across the overdeveloped world has been primarily a celebration of movement. Everybody goes somewhere. And they don’t just go down the road to granny’s. They don’t even just go across the country to granny’s. They go all over the world. Or they try to, and when it doesn’t work they sleep in the airport, refuse to go home, and rage and spit so violently about Nature’s inability to fit into their timetables that the government institutes an inquiry into why the weather isn’t behaving itself.
Unlike the robins and the cobbles, this is very new. It’s only in the last couple of decades at most that international and continental travel of the kind we now expect and demand has even been possible. In a fascinating article in the New Internationalist this month, George Marshall wonders what Britain would look like if the radical cuts in carbon emissions we apparently need were actually put in place. The answer, it turns out, is that it would look like 1972. That’s when we last emitted 80% of the carbon we do now. That was only two years after the first commercial jumbo jet flight landed at Heathrow. It wasn’t so long ago – it was the year of my birth, in fact, and I’m not 40 yet. A lot of things were very different then, but it’s hardly an alien or an impossible way to live.
How did we get from there to here? How did we become a nation of demanding narcissists, raging at the snow instead of marvelling in its beauty? How did we become unable to look at the sky and the frozen ground and say ‘ah well, I’ll change my plans. I’ll stay at home. I’ll mull some wine and go skating.’
I imagine the answer is fairly simple: we were spoilt. Cheap flights, cheap roads, cheap stuff, cheap debt. Borrow now, pay later, and not just financially. One of the losses from this process has been any sense of acceptance we may once have had as a culture; any sense of stoicism, of the kind the British were supposedly once famous for. I have seen this fall away in my lifetime, and I think it has happened because we have been both spoilt and propagandised in tandem. We have been exhorted to think and act like consumers rather than citizens. We must demand, haggle, scream and fight for our rights and for bargains, and whenever we are traduced, we must threaten legal action. Our reliance on the state-corporate Machine has rendered us like teenagers: dependent on authority figures for our succour; raging against them because we know this.
I wonder how we will grow out of this. I wonder, when it sinks in that it’s never going to be as easy and cheap as it once was to fly abroad – or indeed to buy a house, fill the petrol tank, go to Tesco, get a degree … I wonder where that leaves us. I wonder what Christmas looks like in the future. Hopefully there will still be snow. And robins. Who knows, perhaps we will learn again how to stand still and look at them, and to see that itself as a gift rather than a distraction.
Posted by Paul. Monday, December 20th, 2010 at 11:09 pm.