The Christmas Conundrum ~ what is the spirit of the season?

The Christmas Conundrum ~ what is the spirit of the season?

Every year it sneaks up on me and every year I am unprepared and become anxious and then grumpy. Yes, Christmas.

I struggle with Christmas these days. I struggle with balancing my own views with those of the society around me. I struggle to avoid being a nasty grumpy, Grinchey old killjoy who hates pretty much everything about Christmas. I struggle to keep quiet about my views because in the end, they’re just my views and everyone else is as entitled to theirs.

But I don’t hate Christmas. I do hate what it seems to have become, in our current society. I’m not even going to go into the faith-based ideas about Christmas, because when it comes right down to it, actually most theologians would pour cold water on most of the so-called facts of the Christmas story. It doesn’t stop it being a beautiful story, though, or stop me from believing in it even though I know that the events almost certainly did not happen as the tale tells.

At the moment, I see and hear on a daily basis what people are doing and planning and buying for Christmas, and I also notice the increasing levels of stress and worry that accompany all these preparations, and it worries me. We’ve all hear of the traditional blazing rows at the dinner table on Christmas Day and all the accompanying nastiness.

 The following short extract is from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather: 

The wassailers stopped and watched them in horror.

Neither party noticed, as the beggars oozed and ambled up the street, that little smears of black and grey were spiralling out of drains and squeezing out from under tiles and buzzing off into the night. People have always had the urge to sing and clang things at the dark stub of the year, when all sorts of psychic nastiness has taken advantage of the long grey days and the deep shadows to lurk and breed. Lately people had taken to singing harmoniously, which rather lost the effect. Those who really understood just clanged something and shouted.”

 For those who are psychically inclined, there is great truth in this. It’s one reason why for thousands of years in the cold Northern countries (I cannot speak for warmer ones) a festival has always taken place in the midpoint of the year, when the winter has begun to bite, but when the sun has begun its slow climb again. Humankind needs a midwinter festival to get them through the darkest of days that are coming, and whether this is Saturnalia, Yule, the Natalis Invicta , Christmas or whatever, it’s something of a psychological necessity. We need the hope and the light of gathering together against the dark and the cold.  

Apart from the odd sulk over washing dishes, I don’t think we’ve ever had a Christmas day row in my home. But I also think I know why. It’s all about expectations. Let me tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

The first Christmas we spent in Darkest Norfolk was probably one of the best Christmases we’ve ever had. We had friends come and visit, bringing partners, children and assorted hangers-on, to such an extent that I think virtually every item of bedlinen got used, and people were kipping on couches and pretty much anywhere there was space. There was food and drink and music and laughter; the living room stove was made up each morning and was kept stoked and used for roasting chestnuts and toasting marshmallows and warming ale until the last of us crawled to bed at 3am or later. People turned up, with other people, and the house was full to bursting. All the guests got on with each other and tasks like cooking and washing up were done communally and with a lot of giggles and joking. Scented candles were lit at dusk, and the house was an oasis of fellowship and love. It was agreed by everyone it had been a totally magical time, and we’d do it again next year.

Big mistake. We had more or less the same cast of characters, and the same food and drink and music….but a year had gone by, life had happened to folks and the magic was gone. Two friends managed to have one of those rows that never blaze up but become acidic and nasty within half an hour of arriving; it took another 5 or 6 years before they were on good terms again. Everything was the same, externally, but the whole thing was flat and rather lifeless.

We’d tried to recreate the magical atmosphere by assembling the same ingredients, the same components, but this doesn’t work. Think of the money and effort and thought that is spent on a great number of weddings, to recreate a fairytale wedding for the photographs. My husband has seen weddings where the marriage failed within three months; some even failed by the reception. Seriously, I do not jest; the bride used the honeymoon to go on holiday with her mother.

You cannot make Christmas by buying every “essential” item, or by eating or drinking certain things, or by attending carols services or Christmas parties. In fact, you cannot make Christmas at all. Because Christmas exists beyond all the external manifestations we think ARE Christmas.

Christmas is about love. Love. Not tinsel or presents or mince pies or films or music or anything that you can hold in your hand or look at. It’s intangible and elusive; if you try to grab it, it vanishes. And yet, a home that is filled with love will be filled with Christmas throughout the entire year…..and probably little will change for the month of December. That’s the spirit of the season, and it lasts all year in the hearts of those who are filled with love.


“The Black Mist Descended” ~ a guest post by the legendary Jake Barton

 My guest blogger today is the amazing Jake Barton, enigmatic author of Kindle bestselling thrillers Burn, Baby Burn, its sequel Blood and a number of others (one of which is FREE currently). Do go and look him up on Amazon or at his blog:  Ramblings of a Deluded Soul 

The following bio is written by Jake at my request:

Jake Barton lives a determinedly unpredictable life. By design. He makes minimal use of planning, acts on impulse and yet, somehow, manages to make it all work. Most of the time.

He used to be someone completely different – this present incarnation is a massive step down. Jake was known by another name for many years. He was younger then, clever, hirsute, handsome, good company, sensible and superbly fit. Sadly, none of the above apply now.

He writes crime fiction with a hard edge, making use of a life which frequently brought him into contact with major drug dealers, gang leaders, heroin addicts and many other denizens of society’s underbelly. Many of them were fascinating company and regarded him as a friend, albeit a one-sided friendship doomed to be short-lived.

During the course of an unconventional life, touched by wanderlust, involving much movement around the globe, he has been a labourer in a steel-works, taught English and History, been a work-study engineer, a restaurateur, civil servant, Nightclub bouncer, antique dealer, owned a small French vineyard and also had another job that he’s not supposed to talk about where most of the background for his crime novels was learned the hard way over the course of twenty hard years.

To define Jake Barton in one word would be difficult. “Wastrel” comes pretty close.

He writes, sporadically, but doesn’t think of himself as a writer, even though he’s somehow managed to sell in excess of 60,000 books, so far, in 2011. He’s about to set off again, wandering the world, sans map, compass or any idea where he’ll end up. As plans go, it’s rubbish! Sounds about right, then.

The Black Mist.

I used to have a very stressful job. A very specific job for which very few are suited and even fewer stay the course. It involved undercover work, befriending criminals and drug dealers to gain access to gang bosses and major importers. Myself and my colleagues worked in different areas to avoid become known and I met my fellow workers perhaps only once a year. There were eight of us at the ‘sharp end’ and about fifty behind the scenes. Of the eight who did the job at the same time as myself, over a period of twenty years, only three are still alive. Including me, well, obviously!

The constant danger, the retribution meted out if the carefully planned cover failed, the difficulty of adapting to life after the job ended all contributed to this high level of attrition.

I wrote in my own blog recently about meeting a former colleague in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the spinal injuries unit. He’d been beaten so severely he’d been presumed dead and thrown from a speeding car by his assailants. Despite being paralysed from the neck down his positive attitude was massively uplifting.

I’d kill myself, if I could’, he said to me, but then laughed out loud. ‘Nah, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t stand the idea of my wife finding me and thinking, you selfish bastard, what’d you do that for?’

Selfish. The word he chose resonates with me even now. My friend died, in his sleep, three years after I last saw him. His wife gave me his watch, ‘to remember him by.’ I can’t imagine ever forgetting the bravest man I ever met.

Depression has been in the news lately, prompted by the tragic death of a fine man, Gary Speed. I’ve known a few people who’ve taken their own life. In only one case can I honestly say I ever saw suicide as a possibility. That exception was a young man I’d met when I was still playing rugby. Jason was nineteen and a prodigiously gifted athlete, but in desperate need of direction. He’d never played rugby, but I persuaded a friend to offer him a job and begged him to come to training, learn the rudiments of the game. Within two months I was picking him in the first team, on the wing where his inexperience would be less obvious. His pace and enviable fitness stood him in good stead, but it was the friendship of his team-mates, the social aspects of the sport, that made the biggest difference. He was a changed person; no longer drifting through life, but happy and contented with a new job, a girlfriend and a group of mates who thought the world of him.

On Boxing Day, on a pitch that was beginning to freeze, he turned, slipped and tore his cruciate ligament. I’ve had the same injury. It’s painful and restricts your movement for a long time. Unable to play, he came to the clubhouse less and less often. I was worried about his fragile nature, but had, myself, received a serious injury, and was out of touch with my team for a few weeks. When I was fit enough to get out I went to see Jason at home and found his mother in tears. She’d found his body less than an hour ago and the doctor had just arrived and pronounced him dead. I stayed with her, trying to find words suitable for occasions like this.

There aren’t any.

He’d been so good,’ she said, ‘then the black mist came down again.’

The black mist. Depression. We don’t understand it; can’t rationalise it, yet it can disrupt a person’s life to such an extent they can’t bear it any more.

Two former work colleagues took their own lives. Apparently, without anyone close to them having the faintest idea of how bad the situation had become. I knew them both and was shocked to the core when I heard the news. Yes, the job played a part. I’m sure of it. Twenty years on, some memories will never leave me. I’ve recently started to write, in very general terms, about my work experience. It’s hard. The recollections are buried deep. That’s my safety valve. I’m a positive person. I don’t ‘do’ depression, but I understand it. As for suicide; I can’t imagine the level of despair that brings about this decision.

Is it ‘selfish’ as my friend in Stoke Mandeville said? In a way, yes. Of course it is. The people left behind. Those closest to you who love you, care for you. Their despair, that feeling they could have done more, prevented this. I know they feel that as I’ve felt like that on three separate occasions. The problem is: the decision to end one’s life is made under conditions where all rational thought has fled. The ‘black mist’ is control.

I’ll never forget my friend’s cheeriness as I fed him a meal. His nature wouldn’t permit regrets or sorrow at his condition. He shamed me. I’ve never felt so inadequate as I did that afternoon. He was bearing up under conditions that would surely have battered me. We laughed, a lot. He told me everything I needed to know before I took his place within the group of men who’d almost killed him. He also told me about a prominent disk jockey who worked part-time at the hospital and also died recently. My friend said, ‘never met such an arsehole in my life.’ Ah well, there you go!