Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Happy Festivus
Simon Jenkins discovers the Festivus Pole
I must admit, I’m a sucker for Christmas traditions. The jingling of sleigh bells, the singing of carols, the obviously fake beards of the Santas, the Christmas pudding dense enough to trigger a black hole, even the smell of sprouts – I find them all quite magical. But the one tradition I’m most looking forward to this year is the Richard Dawkins Christmas tweet.
’Happy Christmas to anybody who might be reading this,’ he tweeted festively on 25 December a couple of years ago. ‘What the hell?’ one of his followers tweeted back. ‘Happy Mythmas to you too,’ rebuked another. So the following year, Prof Dawkins decided to tweet in a more atheistic vein: ‘Merry Christmas to anyone who might appreciate it, especially those Christians who enjoy pretending there’s a “War on Christmas”.’ This earned him a headline in the Independent: ‘Even in his Christmas message, Richard Dawkins manages to be a massive troll.’ Poor Richard. It seems you can’t please anyone at Christmas if you’re an atheist.
Lovely though Christmas is, there’s something about the season that makes people want to roll up the sleeves of the hideous jumper they’ve just unwrapped and start a fight. Maybe we all feel a bit tense after six weeks of trudging into Boots and hearing Noddy Holder blast out: ‘So here it is, merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun.’ Maybe it’s being confined in a smallish room with a mixed bag of relatives after eating way too many root vegetables. Whatever it is, Christmas seems to have the knack of raising our blood pressure even while it’s meant to be raising our spirits.
Christmas has occasionally been a war zone since the time of the Reformation. The Puritans (who weren’t so much ‘born again’ as ‘born against’) simply hated it. Not only was it too popish for them, they detested all the feasting, dancing, dressing up, drinking and carol singing – which admittedly had got a bit out of hand by Elizabethan times. ‘Now bring me some figgy pudding’ wasn’t the half of it. So, in the 1640s and 50s, when the Puritans briefly got into power, Christmas was first outlawed and then banned for several years, which caused rioting in London and Canterbury. One anti-Christmas pamphlet gleefully described the Puritan triumph over the ungodly: ‘The scholars come into the hall, where their hungry stomacks had thought to have found good brawne and Christmas pie, roast-beef and plum-porridge. Away, ye profane! These are superstitious meats; your stomacks must be fed with sound doctrine.’ So the Puritan choice seems to come down to a steaming plate of Christmas lunch, or an indigestible set of Calvin’s Institutes.
In the almost 400 years since, the festival has been sneered at by Ebenezer Scrooge (‘Bah! Humbug!’); it’s been reinvented by the US writer Clement Clarke Moore, whose poem (‘’Twas the night before Christmas’) turned Santa Claus into the central character of the holiday; and it’s even been degraded by Hitler, who made it a festival of Nazism, complete with swastikas on baubles. In our own time, Christmas is buried each year in an almighty avalanche of advertising and shopping, followed by the trampling of sales stampedes on Boxing Day. You don’t have to be a Puritan or a grinch to feel that, despite the joyous excitement of nativity plays and the beauty of carols and candlelight, Christmas is a very noisy and quarrelsome season.
Help could be in sight in the form of a simple invention called the Festivus Pole. This unlikely item started out as the private family tradition of a US scriptwriter, Dan O’Keefe, but it stepped into the spotlight when O’Keefe wrote it into an episode of the sitcom, Seinfeld. Here’s how it works. Instead of putting a Christmas tree in the corner of your room, you’re invited to stick a bare aluminium pole on a wooden stand. No baubles, lights, tinsel, presents, or star on top. Just the pole. It’s become popular in the US as a way of protesting the crazy over-the-topness of shopaholic, muzak-filled Christmas.
I’m no Oliver Cromwell, but I like this product. It reminds me how unplugged modern Christmas is from the story at its heart. What on earth has this out-of-control festival got to do with the poverty and hardship of Mary giving birth in a town where no one cared about how or where she did it? Christmas is supposed to tell that story, but, like a huge uncle bloated with turkey standing in front of the TV, it just gets in the way of it. Maybe a bare aluminum pole is the answer. Or maybe it’s listening to Jesus, born in that hard town, when he simply says: ‘Follow me.’
This article was published in the December 2017/January 2018 edition of Reform