Christmas by Quentin Bates

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Aside from the spleen to come, I would like to wish all of the Reality Check’s readers a happy Christmas. Not happy holidays. I find the mealy-mouthed political correctness of the expression abhorrent. I’ve been wished happy Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, New Year, etc often enough  and just take it for what it is, an expression of goodwill and it doesn’t bother me a great deal how it’s dressed up.

I have to admit, this isn’t my favourite time of the year. Christmas is overwhelming. Not that I’m exactly ancient, but when I was much younger, the ball started rolling around the middle of December. Since then it seems to have started a little earlier every year. Now it seems we’re expected to be gearing up for Christmas from the first week in September onwards, apart from a short break when the Hallowe’en stuff comes out – and where did that one come from? No, I decline to wish anyone a happy Hallowe’en. I suppose it arrived on the back of so much else that comes from across the pond and provides the merchants with a hook to sell yet more overpriced junk to the good burghers of Pudding Island.

While I don’t have any particular objections to Christmas, by the time it does finally roll round at the end of December, I’ve already had enough and would like to get back to normal again, thanks. I’m no Scrooge, but after a month of relentless advertising and wrist-slashingly dire schmaltzy carol-based muzak in every shop, dentist’s waiting room and airport, the inclination to snarl ‘Bah, Humbug’ is almost irresistible. But then muzak is a pet loathing of mine. The corridors of hell are undoubtedly fitted with poor-quality loudspeakers playing tinny versions of terrible 1980s hits arranged for the hammond organ just slightly too loud to be ignored.

There are bits of Christmas that I do appreciate; getting together with the extended (and extending) clan for some thoroughly decent meals, a few days of relaxation and the chance to stick the nose into a good book without interruption, and the phone calls from friends half-way around the world who may well be calling from a beach somewhere.

If Christmas could be just those bits, then it would be absolutely fine with me. The downside is being urged and begged and guilt-tripped to spend, spend, spend at every turn, as if it’s every good citizen’s duty to lash out on brand name toys for all and sundry to keep the economy of the western world from collapsing. There’s scarcely an escape anywhere from the hype.

I’m not religious in any way, and certainly don’t describe myself as a Christian (or anything in any religious terms, for that matter) but the hypocrisy of the whole shebang grates. It’s a very long time since I last dipped into the Bible (or the Koran or any other such tome full of supposedly good news), but I seem to recall that Christianity’s main man didn’t have a lot of time for the money lenders, so I wonder what he’d make of Toys R Us, Amazon, Walmart and all the other retailers with shareholders who need to be kept happy cashing in big time on the festival that took his name? Somehow I can’t imagine that a good Jewish boy who undoubtedly loved his mother would be overly impressed. Mind you, those were some pretty outlandish ideas he’s purported to have come up with. All that stuff about tolerance and being nice to the neighbours instead of coveting their concubines and oxen, and selling them dodgy timeshares or legal services for accidents they didn’t have? Ridiculous. You’ll get nowhere in post-Thatcher Britain spouting bleeding heart pinko-liberal claptrap like that.

But I digress, as so often. Where was I? Oh, yes. Christmas, that festival that was conveniently borrowed and tacked onto the pre-Christian winter solstice festivals that presumably go back to the time when early man was clued up enough to figure out when the shortest day of the year took place.

One of the pleasures of this time of year is seeing the youngest of us enjoying themselves wholeheartedly with some of those brand name toys, with the uncomfortable feeling that they’re being carefully groomed by the gurus of the marketing business to plunge into the self-same jamboree of consumption henceforth, and to maybe extend Christmas into August? By the end of the century, Christmas could even be an all-year-round festival? You heard it here first, folks.





However, if you happen to be in Iceland on this day, you’ll find it’s the feast of Saint Thorlákur. The 12th century cleric Thorlákur Thórhallsson has a bunch of miracles attributed to him, was bishop of Skálholt for the last dozen years of his life and there’s an ancient saga devoted to him, the Saga of Saint Thorlákur. Oddly, he was only canonised by the Pope in 1984.

Saint Thorlákur’s Day is celebrated with by eating cured skate, a custom from the Westfjords that has spread to the rest of Iceland. I won’t go into detail on the cured skate, which has to sit in a bag for a week or three to get rid of the worst of the ammonia, but it’s not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. I’ve tried it and once was enough. Let’s say the aroma lingers, and you only have to walk down the street on the 23rd of December and sniff the air if you want to know which households are cooking skate.

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