To paraphrase Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Christmas, love it or loathe it, you can’t ignore it. They say it’s all about the children, but not being a parent I can’t vouch for that. Much as I might complain about crass commercialism and greed, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the ritual of breaking bread with friends and family. There’s something primal about eating together - probably a throwback to the tribe sharing their bounty. Socialism with a small “s”. Something, regardless of the season, that I think we all need more of in these uncertain times.
So what else is Christmas good for? Songs and films, of course, and I don’t mean the ubiquitous Bond repeats. Music, for those of you who don’t know or haven’t yet guessed, is something of a passion of mine. Regrettably, I have very little sense of timing or rhythm and couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I don’t let that stop me from appreciating the work of others. Of the many Christmas songs out there it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Fairy Tale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl is my favourite. Who can argue with the lyrics, “You scumbag, you maggot, You cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last”? But as great as that scans, it’s the structure and tone of the lyrics overall that make this song a classic. I’ve always been drawn to songs with a strong narrative, of which the above is a classic example. We get MacGowan’s drunken optimism, followed by MacColl’s bitterness at having wasted her life with him, which sends MacGowan into maudlin self-pity. As Christmas songs go, they don’t come much more grounded in reality than this. Christmas, the time when families are supposed to come together but more often than not end up fighting.
But when it comes to telling a story in song, few can rival Leonard Cohen or
. I’ve never really understood why people find Cohen depressing. The vocals are somewhat lugubrious and the song arrangements often sparse, but when you actually listen to the words there’s a lot of humour and irony there, as well as erudition. I remember reading an interview with Cohen a number of years back in which he stated he would no longer use a reference such as Abraham and Isaac in his writing as the majority of people would no longer comprehend it. Whatever your views of religion, the stories of the Old Testament resonate with the power of myth - something a storyteller can always use in his or her arsenal. Abraham, who waited many years for God to bestow a child upon him, is asked by that same God to make a burnt offering of his only son. It’s the ultimate illustration of faith. And yet, as Kierkegaard points out in Fear And Trembling, if he is so certain why does he not tell Isaac? If you’re familiar with the story, a reference to Abraham and Isaac provides instant shorthand to powerful emotional themes. Some might say that while this is fine in song or poetry, in prose it is the crutch of a lazy writer. But as Oscar Wilde pointed out, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” Genius, it appears, is in short supply these days. Nick Cave
Back to Christmas. Your gut is bursting. You’ve watched the Doctor Who Christmas special and reached the point where if you hear Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody one more time someone is going to get hurt. What’s left? Only the greatest Christmas film ever made in the form of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In a modern and cynical age, one could be forgiven for thinking that a man such as George Bailey could never exist outside of
, even in the 1940’s. A man who consistently put doing the “right thing” above his own hopes, dreams and ambitions, sometimes at terrible personal cost. And yet surely only the most jaded of souls can watch IAWL and not wish they were a little more like Bailey? Of course, those of us who find ourselves standing on a bridge contemplating suicide aren’t fortunate enough to have the intervention of a guardian angel, second class or otherwise, let alone be given the gift of seeing the world how it would be if we’d never existed. In Bailey’s case, thanks to his kindness and compassion, it all comes good and he passes through his darkness and come to appreciate the life he has. Sentimental, perhaps, but if you can’t indulge in a little sentimentality at Christmas when can you? Hollywood