Tag Archives: christmas

Tis the season to be cranky

I don’t enjoy midwinter festivals much. I don’t enjoy the cold, or the pressure to be jolly. Thankfully, the man who made it his personal job to patronise me about this every year has removed himself from my life, so that at least, is progress.

As a self employed person, I don’t get sick pay or paid holiday leave. Several of my jobs depend on how well I do the jobs, so time spent not working can compromise how much paying work there is available for me in the future. But even so, there’s not much work to be done between Christmas and the New Year. It’s not a good time to try and sell books.

On the plus side, I get a whole week off. This will be the first whole week off I’ve had since this time last year. I do not recommend this as a way of working, but I have yet to figure out an alternative. I thought I’d manage to take a week off in the summer, but a loss of hours from what was then my main job made that impossible.

So between here and the great shutdown, I’m doing all the work I can. Christmas brings extra costs, I can’t afford for this to be a thin month. I know a great many other people have the same problem – unpaid holidays are a nightmare. Not everyone has the scope to pick up other work to fill the gaps.

I’ve got two late night jobs coming up and three days on the local market. The market work is a gamble, but hopefully we’ll make something selling books there. I’ve written all my blog posts already, and by the middle of next week I’ll hopefully have all my other from-home work done for the festive period. It’s a bit of a strain. I will likely hit the festive period exhausted and needing that week to recover, which is not what I want from a holiday.

And on the whole I know I’m lucky, because I do have paying work and I can afford to heat my home and eat over Christmas and many people are far worse off than this. If you are marginal, midwinter festivals are a nightmare, simply. The extra stress and pressures are not welcome. If you aren’t marginal, be alert to your scope for adding to someone else’s misery. Don’t tell them off if they don’t have the energy for parties, or don’t want to come out, or aren’t getting into the festive spirit – that just piles shame and discomfort onto existing problems. If someone doesn’t seem to be having a merry Christmas, try asking what would help rather than telling them to try harder.

It’s also a good time of year to avoid piling extra work onto other people. I mention this because that’s the thing I’m most cranky about. Not extra pay, extra work. At no notice. If you are comfortable, don’t assume everyone else has the same resources of time and energy to deploy at your whim.

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Real Christmas Elves

All of the gifts we give have been made by someone, or made by machines with people keeping an eye on them. Unless you buy directly from the creator, or from an outlet that cares about individual creators, you’ll know nothing about the elves who made your gifts.

Where do they live? What kind of standard of living do they have? Were they happy, while they were making that gift? We can’t tell, but at that same time, I think we all know the likely answers here are not happy ones.

It’s a whole other story with the elves we imagine making Santa’s gifts. Smiling, happy elves, willing to do the work. But at the same time we never see any rewards for those elves. We don’t tend to tell stories that give them rich personal lives.

So much of the ‘joy’ in this season depends on having money and resources. It’s fine and dandy if you can be the person who buys gifts, and a whole other story if you’re an invisible elf tucked away in some factory grinding this stuff out.

Happy elves tend to be working for themselves and making something they are invested in. Even then, most creative people don’t earn much for their labours. A few extra purchases here and there can make a world of difference, whereas spending your money with a big retailer just puts a bit more in the accounts of their shareholders.

When you buy gifts for others, you are, for a little while, in the Father Christmas role. It’s up to you what kind of real life elves you have.


Have a green Christmas tree

The Christmas tree is one of those seasonal features likely to appeal to Pagans. How green is your tree, and what does it cost?

In 2014, some 160,000 tons of Christmas trees went to landfill. Once in landfill, they rot and give out methane, which is not good news for the environment. Yes, you can have them chipped and used for something, but growing a non-native tree in plantations, cutting it, transporting it, sticking it in the corner of a room for a few weeks and then chipping it doesn’t sound like a good use of natural resources to me.

Here’s some more data and some more tree alternatives. https://www.upcyclist.co.uk/2017/11/zero-waste-christmas-trees/

Here’s what the Carbon Trust has to say about Christmas trees and their impact. Interestingly, real trees still have a lower carbon footprint than artificial ones. https://www.carbontrust.com/news/2013/01/christmas-tree-disposal-advice/

Clearly one answer to having a tree, is to keep a live tree in a bucket and heft it indoors every year. Carbon goes into the tree and methane does not come out. However, there are issues here – you need outside space for them, and they get bigger year on year and may not suit the space you have. Locally there’s an amazing scheme that allows people to rent live Christmas trees- thus getting round the issue of storage for the rest of the year, and growth.

Another answer is to use something else – Yule logs are also traditional, cut branches from trees can be decorated and if they were going to be cut anyway, that’s lower impact. You can make a tree out of whatever’s around, as with the charming examples on the Upcyclist website. You can decorate something already in your home. I don’t have space for a tree, but I do have a rather large Christmas cactus, so I may decorate that this year.

When it comes to tree decoration, think about how much plastic you’re going to use and consider its lifespan. If you like tinsel, store it and re-use it rather than buying new each year. It doesn’t take up much space and it keeps well. Try sourcing decorations from craftspeople, and have things made of natural materials where you can. Make things yourself – it all involves more time and effort of course, but you’ll get more from it than grabbing cheap plastic baubles that mean nothing to you. Aim to send nothing decorative to landfill at the end of the season. This is a great opportunity to use your imagination and harness your creativity, rather than being sold a bland, and environmentally damaging ‘solution’ to Christmas.


Greener for Christmas

Wrapping paper is incredibly wasteful. Much of it has too a high a plastic content to be recycled. If you want to be greener for Christmas (or Yule, or whatever else you may be celebrating or obliged to participate in) tackling your paper waste is a good idea.

Last year I gave my family gifts in re-usable fabric bags. This year I’ve started sewing earlier and have sourced some festive print. Hand sewing a bag doesn’t take that long.

Here are this year’s bags, with books partially tucked into them for scale, and a surprise, photo-bombing cat called Tiggy.

 


Festive on my own terms

I don’t enjoy Christmas, for all kinds of personal reasons, alongside my loathing of the dire amounts of waste it causes. I also feel deeply uneasy about the financial pressure to buy, inflicted on people who will end up in debt as a consequence and for whom January will be miserable, terrifying, sometimes suicide inducing. I hate forced jollity, and I know too many people for whom this is the season to feel keenly the absence of lost loved ones.

If you enjoy the festive period, fine, go for it. What I object to are the people who feel entitled to tell me – and others who are unhappy during this season – that we should be happy. We should make more effort to be happy. We shouldn’t be such killjoys. We shouldn’t talk about the bad things, we should pretend they don’t exist. Sod that. Ironically, this approach adds to the misery. Being asked to fake Christmas spirit for the benefit of those around me has never made me feel better about things.

Festive on my terms. It means doing the things I want to do, not the things other people want me to do. Most years it means crafting gifts and buying things I can afford from local traders. It means not having put up any decorations, and looking forward to not having to take them down again later. It means not eating myself into a state of discomfort in a single session, but lots of evenings cheerfully nomming on root vegetables. It means pudding, because I do truly love the Christmas pudding, and I love it best when I’ve not had to get into proper festive spirit with a course or two ahead of it.

This year, I’ve done a fantastic job so far of avoiding too much exposure to shitty Christmas pop songs. That’s been a great mood improver. Empty, saccharine coated lyrics full of pretending everything is lovely. I especially hate any song that tries to tell us about peace and goodwill at Christmas. A feelgood fantasy that helps us ignore how much is really wrong. So much is wrong right now, hanging a bit of tinsel off it won’t change that. We can’t shop our way into the world being a better place.

When the stuffed full bin bags start to appear after the big day, I will mourn, as I mourn every year for the waste of resources, for the lack of care, for the total pointlessness of it. That particular phase of grief has become part of what this season means to me. It is a time to mourn for humanity, to mourn for our eco-suicide, our enthusiasm for putting short term superficial cheer ahead of the survival of the planet. It’s a time to mourn for all the things I can’t fix. And then we rush towards the shiny promise of the New Year telling ourselves it will be great and getting massively drunk to prove it.

I don’t want glut and debt. I want small good things that can be paced through the darker months. I want the warm comfort of being snuggled up inside with people I like spending time with. I want a steady supply of good food. I want lights – just a few lights, because I also want the deep winter darkness. I want real peace, not pretend peace designed to make us spend more money.


Father Christmas and the Pagan Child

Becoming a parent, back in 2002, the issue of what to do with Christmas soon raised its head for me. Of course for the first couple of rounds the lad was too young to have any clue. He grew up without a television so I largely got away with it until he was about three, and then of course other people started asking him what Father Christmas would be bringing. I left wrapped gifts by his bed that year, he was confused about them, but the joy of unwrapping soon wiped that away.

By the time he was four, I was really uneasy. I didn’t want to lie to him about the existence of a mythic figure who would come down the chimney and leave gifts. I wanted to be able to talk to him about myth and magic, wonder and possibility in a way that would open up his world, and enable him to trust me.

I think it was the year that the boy was 5, that we debunked Father Christmas. His school were collecting for children who had little or nothing, and I watched his growing concern and distress. As a bright lad with a tendency to think about things, he was starting to notice that the magical spirit of Christmas always gave the most to the richest children and seemed happy to leave starving children to starve, and deprived children with little or nothing. He had a sense of fair play from early on, and the wisdom to know this wasn’t it. When I sat him down and explained, he was relieved.

I remember the same year another mother on the playground saying that her son had announced he couldn’t possibly be happy at Christmas unless Father Christmas brought him a gold Dalek. They cost about fifty pounds, and she couldn’t afford it. Where do you even start?

I like the idea of a spirit of generosity at Christmas. However, the idea of Santa rewarding the good children leads to the reinforcing of the idea that money and goodness are one and the same thing. The good children all have rich parents. Poor children will get a very different experience of Christmas, and the super expensive must have, highly advertised Christmas toys are not available to them.

Bring back Krampus!


Aspiring to be less hard working

Most days I start the computer after breakfast – usually by 7.30 am, and kick off the working day by writing a blog post. It serves as a warm up for my brain, and for my hands, and guarantees that I do at least some writing every day. However, for the next week or so, the posts have all been set up in advance. There’s some new poetry and some short stories in the offing. I shall mostly be offline.

I’ve been planning this for ages, and getting everything set up so that I can have some time off. I haven’t had a whole week off in nearly 6 years. It’s one of the problems with being self-employed. To have time off, I need to have earned enough to be able to afford not to work for a week. If I want to go away, I need to have earned enough to be able to afford to go away, on top of the cost of a week not working. Like most self-employed people, my earnings are erratic, which makes saying no to work when there is any feel hazardous at best.

I’ve learned, the hard way, just how essential time off is. I’ve had long stretches of 7 day weeks – not necessarily seven long days, but it’s surprising how much odds it makes. Two half days off are not the same as one whole day. Two days back to back are not the same as afternoons off scattered through a week. Without decent chunks of time off it’s difficult to slow down, get out of work mode and clear the head for a bit. Without some head clearing it’s difficult to find new energy and ideas. This is not an issue solely for creative people. I worry about the way in which people in poverty are ending up with multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, and not getting any down time. Now might be a good moment to mention the crisis in mental health that we’ve collectively worked ourselves into.

‘Hard working families’ is a political refrain I particularly detest. Now that Christmas is upon us, though, the hard working families are expected to dutifully down tools and spend money they can’t really afford on things they don’t really need. Much that has been bought for this weekend will shortly be heading to landfill. Food waste, extra rubbish, useless gifts. But it’s all good for the economy! And if you consider the work preparing for the ‘holidays’ as unpaid work, there’s a lot of work going on right now. We are to aspire to being good little producers and consumers and the only way to keep an economy endlessly growing is to keep us all buying far more than we actually need.

I’m trying to be less hard working. It’s a big part of my agenda right now. Shorter working days and shorter working weeks, and holidays should not be considered luxuries for the fortunate few, but the key to a better standard of living for all of us. This also means paying people what they’re worth, and paying people enough to live on so that they can afford to stop and draw breath once in a while.

I shall be spending next week doing very little to help GDP. Lie ins, reading, a bit of gardening at a community allotment, a walk or two, time with friends… I hope whatever you’re doing between here and the end of the calendar year, you have a fantastic time of it.


Convention and tradition

Midwinter offers a vast array of conventions masquerading as traditions. The giveaway that they are conventions is there if you poke around in their history, of which there is little, and in the way that they come across as somehow universal, while traditions are far less prone to this. The modern obsession with gratuitous consumption has more to do with the images hammered into us by advertisers, and the dominant cultural narrative that there must always be more. It must be bigger than last year, cost more, have more lights on it and make more noise. We must get fatter, and in the New Year feel even more guilty and sign up for an even more austere diet.

What is tradition then, if not conventions? Traditions don’t require people to know or understand what they’re doing – The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and the Hunting of the Earl of Rhone are fine cases in point. No one has a clue what that was originally about, but we keep doing it anyway. Morris dancing as well, has its origins and purpose obscured. However, many traditions, when you prod them, have a function of social rebalancing. Be it the letting off steam around festivals and Lords of Misrule, or the legitimised begging of mummers and wasailers, traditions keep things working nicely. Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun is the book for anyone who wishes to delve further.

Traditions honour and celebrate the cycle of the seasons. You can see in Christmas and New Year conventions some lingering echo of that, but the idea of lights and feasting as a reaction to darkness and privation isn’t much discussed. It is a time of year when charities go out of their way to appeal to us, but there is precious little rebalancing in our greed based culture. The UK had (according to homeless charity Shelter) 93,000 homeless children this Christmas. Police in London took blankets and other possessions from rough sleepers. Traditional Christian values around charity and compassion have been entirely separated, for the majority of people, from the festival of getting drunk, eating too much and falling asleep in front of the telly.

Conventions encourage us all to do the same thing. Christmas and New Year traditions have varied a fair bit over time. Sure there’s always been some carousing, except when the Puritans were in power and abolished mince pies. (Mince pies used to have meat in them by the way, what you buy in the supermarket is not what was traditional). Traditions tend to be broader, wider, and more flexible. The same song can have three different tunes, the same story can be told in a dozen different traditional songs. The same festivals can be celebrated all over the place, but not necessarily by everyone, or on exactly the same date or in quite the same way. Traditions grow, evolve and are peppered with local innovations. Burns Night might seem like an ancient Scottish tradition with its Haggis and impenetrable poetry, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not very old at all.

Will the modern conventions of turkey on Christmas day (A recent import from America) with roast potatoes (only been here a few hundred years, the potato) carry on forever into the future? Probably not. Any more than the iconic boar’s head stayed as the high point of the feast. We don’t cook birds in their feathers to make dramatic table presentations any more, either. We’ve folded the winter festivals inwards, focusing on hearth and screen and visible spending power. Can we keep on that way, ever bigger and better and with even more lights on it? The thing about traditions is that they respond to the needs of the day or they do not continue. The needs of the future will be for greater responsibility, and a far fairer sharing of resources. Give it a hundred years or so, and the outsized turkey and mountains of wrapping paper may seem as ludicrous to our descendents as beef in a mince pie seems to us.

About the only thing you can say for tradition, is that it doesn’t stay still. Anything that seems solid, certain and reliable, is probably just a fleeting convention.


A swan wind

We were up long before dawn, walking out into the darkness. A half-moon sat high in the sky, occasionally shrouded by clouds. For once, the roads were largely empty and the early day peaceful and silent as we set off up the hill. Already the darkness in the east had softened to tones of blue. As we climbed the hill, blue faded slowly into a pale yellow suggestive of coming light.

There were street lamps, we did not walk in darkness, but the surrounding landscape was largely hidden as we started. By the halfway point on the hill, the Severn plain had grown visible, a landscape of greys with the distant hills little more than rumour.

We came off the road, onto the grass, still climbing. In nearby trees, an owl hooted, calling the end to the hunting night just as larks in the grasses began to fly and sing out to the day. We paused to reflect that this would have given Shakespeare a bit of a headache. Larks are so often thought of as summer birds, but they still fly the hill top through the winter, singing their rippling melodies. From nearby a buzzard called and we heard a raven.

There came a point when we suddenly rose high enough to enter the wind. It was an icy blast, coming from the east. At this time of year, the east wind brings us snow, and also migrating swans from Russia. They’ve been slow to arrive at Slimbridge, the wet, southerly winds we’ve been having make their long journey difficult indeed. I thought of them, and wondered if they would be flying in.

By the time we reached the hilltop, light had permeated the vale, bringing greens to the fields, although the hills remained grey and mysterious. We walked to the barrow, but it was too cold in the wind to stay still for long. Turning to face the dawn, we walked back, watching the skyline pink and glow with the coming day.

Coming down the hill, the sound of wings stopped us in our tracks. Not all birds are identifiable in flight, but one kind of wing whistles as it moves, making a distinctive sound that carries far. There, passing over the hill, were two swans, flying from the east towards Slimbridge. From that distance, we could not see their beaks (orange for the resident mute, yellow for the migrating bewicks and whoopers). Given the time of day, the wind direction and the size, I think they were bewicks, with a few miles left to go of their epic journey down from the arctic tundra. It was a remarkable moment, and while I have seen the migratory swans many times before, I have never previously seen them flying in.

It is not quite what we had planned for today, but this morning has been a blessing. We saw a kestrel as we were coming down off the hill. Seagulls were flying up from the Severn to spend the day in the hills, as is their habit. Then, the peal of church bells, no doubt for an early morning service. We walked down to a town no longer lit by streetlights, but waking into action. Cars on the road. Cheery greetings from strangers. The smell of unspeakable things being done to turkeys. It’s not my festival, but it can bring out warmth and conviviality in people, and that’s no bad thing.

Now, to work, and cook, and see what the rest of the day brings.


The Christmas list

I want miracles. My first proposed miracle for tomorrow would be to wake up in the sure and certain knowledge that no one else is waking up hungry or homeless. Far too many people in the UK alone will do both tomorrow. Not because they deserve it. Not because we’ve been hit by war or natural disaster, but because of the wilful incompetence of politicians who see human lives as just numbers on a page. Not very important numbers, at that.

As the second proposed miracle, I would like to wake up tomorrow and find that, during the night everyone has spontaneously noticed that we have just the one planet and that trashing it is suicide. While we are undertaking that miracle, I’d like us to suddenly all realise that there is more to quality of life than material greed and that it is utterly shameful to own wanton excesses of wealth when others are suffering. I would like us all to start feeling a bit more responsible for each other and for the world we live in. I think pretty much everything else could be sorted out with that in place.

Tomorrow I mostly get what I have wanted for me. I get to wake up beside the man of my choosing, knowing that my child is safe, well and happy. I get to walk across the hills. I’m doing an epic trek, and very much looking forward to it. There will be time to greet the ancestors along the way, and the hours of quietly walking with Tom and taking in the views will be a joy, whatever the weather gives us. I am hoping for a peaceful and conflict free day. This year, I am passably happy, for which I am deeply grateful. This time last year, I was burned out emotionally, and poised to have a dose of pneumonia. I have a better place to live than I had a year ago, and better prospects. It’s more than enough to be going along with.

What else is there to want? A few days off. The company of people I like. Something fun. I’ve had some beautiful time out with friends and family in the last week or so – The Enchanted Christmas at Westonbirt, with trees lit up in lovely ways. Cold and windswept solstice honouring, with a wild wind, the ancestors, and good friends. Time to be outside, and to be with people. Music in the offing… the good stuff.

Christmas always leads me to thinking about the people who are no longer in my life, too. The dead. The dear ones who live too far away for me to see often. The ones who fell out of my life by various means; deliberate, accidental, wanted and unwanted. As a consequence it is for me a time of nostalgia and a touch of melancholy. Any excuse…

In too many households the next few days will be an excuse, amongst the stress of the festive period, to shout at someone. Family tensions rise to the surface, all too often. The pressures of poverty and advertising combine to create stresses and demands that cannot be met. The children who are taught through commercials that love is measured in the size and number of gifts. The women conditioned to believe that Christmas is a time when you work yourself ragged to provide something ‘perfect’ for a bunch of people, some perhaps more grateful than others. It is a time when far too much food and goods will be sent on to landfill. The season of waste. The season of arguments, the worst time for those who are already alone, vulnerable, in trouble, grieving…

Whatever you do with the next few days, do it gently. Do not let it be an excuse for crap. No amount of expense, alcohol or imperfect cooking justifies violence… be that verbal or physical, but in some homes it will be handled just that way. Look out for the people around you. And if you’d like to make some contributions to proposed miracles one and two, the world is your oyster.