‘There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes. It is the very essence of the festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly…’ Thus began G. K. Chesterton’s umpteenth Christmas column. I know the feeling. I’m the shopkeeper who lugs the Christmas mailing to the village post office on Halloween, 3,000 cards addressed not to my farthest and dearest but to my database, a coupling of words that, together with ‘farm diversification’, may smack of commercial verve, but lacks poetry. But the early mailing includes our ‘Holiday Diary’, seasonal events that keep us cheerful and in business.
I stick to my promise of no Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving, a Chestertonian vow that my sister calls ‘quaint and High Church’ and I take quiet pride in a shop that is a refuge from Christmas carol soundtracks and automated reindeer. But even as I strive to create an atmosphere that is peaceful and exciting, I feel guilty about the modern belief that our only hope of salvation is in the Visa of the Consumer. Like the Undecided Voter who holds the fate of his country in his greasy hand, the Consumer holds the future of the civilised world in his wallet. Every newspaper comes with the warning: if you don’t spend this Christmas, you may not see another one.
Forking out for the blue Roberts radio/the Canon 10-megapixel camera/the cashmere dressing gown is not evidence of crass materialism, it is a sign of pure patriotism. We can only win the war with our PIN numbers that boost the economy that pays the taxes that buy bulletproof vests. If you care about our troops, the poor and the lonely, just Argos it. When President Bush urged citizens to go out and shop after 9/11-‘Head to the mall and show the terrorists what brave people the Americans are!’-frankly, I was embarrassed.
Now, Gordon Brown is encouraging us to do the same, to buy with confidence, never mind that the country is drowning in debt and the level of personal debt is the highest in Europe. But people are getting another message. No, not the one about the disorganised parents giving birth to a baby in a manger, a story that happens to be the cornerstone of the Christian faith. It is the message that folk feel in their bones: we have consumed ourselves into this mess and we can’t spend our way out of it.
Customers tell me about the daughter ‘with a First from Oxford’ who lost her job at Lehman Brothers the week before partnership; about a husband in a City law firm who has taken a 10% pay cut; a wife whose bonus is on hold. They don’t believe that the answer to their troubles is a Sony Bravia television or a Georg Jensen bracelet. It’s the peace of knowing that the mortgage payment can be made and that nothing is about to be turned off. Here in the country, there is a feeling that Christmas is different this year. Not like that Christmas in Little Women when the March girls are too poor to buy presents for each other, but find joyfulness in a letter from their father who is off at war and give their Christmas breakfast to the poor immigrant children living nearby.
And it won’t be like A Child’s Christmas in Wales, where it was always snowing, ‘white as Lapland, although there were no reindeers. But there were cats’. We are a houseful of 12 for four days, a balance of family and friends, the best formula for sustained harmony. I’ve forewarned them that this is a turkey-free year, with everything we eat coming from the bounty of the homestead. (Evangelia, our five-year-old Norfolk Black turkey, is a testament to the ‘name’ theory of survival.) There is a hankering for simplicity, a recognition that the asset-stripping of our spiritual lives had to end sometime and that something better will come of it. Something that breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly.