As I strolled through the aisles in a large department store, I almost choked when I read a large display that blared: ‘Don’t forget to treat your pussy at Christmas…’ with relief I read the rest of the ad: ‘…and your bow-wow too!’ Beneath the dubious banner lay a massive display of beautifully wrapped chew toys, scratching posts and all manner of treats and playthings. That’s when I realised this entire Christmas practice has gone truly bonkers.
Every 6 January I breathe a sigh of relief as I take down and store the enormous number of Christmas decorations with which I festoon my house. ‘Never again!’ I say to Percy, ‘Let’s go away next Christmas.’ But when the following November rolls around, all is forgotten and the boxes of goodies are brought out with much excitement and anticipation and I start to deck the halls all over again. Christmas is a joyous time in our house and I never fail to revel in it. I’m not a religious person, nor am I an atheist. I’m more of an agnostic, really. But I was raised with Christian values by a Church of England mother to the amusement of my Jewish father and my ‘hovering Buddhist’ uncle George, who’d been in a Japanese concentration camp. I was told that I could choose my own religious beliefs ‘when I grew up’.
Multicultural as we were, Christmas was joyously celebrated each year, even during the declining days of the second world war. There was no ‘bah-humbug’ in our house. We had a small tree, simple decorations, one gift each and a stocking for Jackie, my cousins and me. This would contain a small puzzle, a tiny book or comic strip and a few sweets or an orange. How things have changed! I love Christmas and I wish it could go back to the simplicity that defined it for me as a child. There was a magical aura that we seem to have lost.
When I appeared in a Christmas pantomime in Birmingham a few years ago there were no jolly Christmas lights or Santas in the street and hardly any nativity scenes or traditional decorations in the shops. When I asked a cab driver the reason, he shrugged and told me: ‘We can’t even call it Christmas — it’s Winterfest here — otherwise it offends them.’ That didn’t stop the council from endorsing the biggest of Christmas (sorry, Winterfest) villages in the style of a Bavarian town, selling novelties, drink and food, the large proportion of the latter being beer, pretzels and smoked sausages tended by servers in lederhosen. I felt I was in the middle of a Mel Brooks musical.
People rarely say ‘Merry Christmas’ on their cards any more, opting rather for the blander ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Peace on Earth’. Some districts even ban religious displays in public spaces and insist on generic decorations. So the religious significance of Christmas is downplayed and the consumer side is emphasised — as if we’ve decided Christmas is first and foremost a valuable economic commodity, and who cares why we celebrate it? On Rodeo Drive, the prosperous shopping street in Beverly Hills, the decorations consist of five or six massive boxes piled on top of each other and wrapped with red and green ribbon, block after block in the central section of the avenue.
In early December I visited restaurants and clubs in Hollywood where practically everyone was sloppily dressed. This appears to be the norm now. People going out in the evening wearing baggy cargo shorts, or jeans with so many holes and rips in them that they look as if they’ve just been pulled out of a bin. These so-called ‘designer’ jeans are sold for large sums in the trendy boutiques and stores. The shabby-T-shirt-brigade look at you scornfully, as if you’d come from another century, which of course we have. But just after Thanksgiving, at the end of November, these trendsetters top off their unstylish garb with ludicrous Santa Claus hats worn without aplomb. It’s an offence not just against religious sensibilities, but against fashion.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential aspirant and front-runner (yes, he is!) has been vociferous in his disdain for the new secular joylessness of Christmas. He scorned Starbucks for having the nerve to introduce as this year’s ‘Christmas cup’ a plain red design devoid of any of the reindeers, snowflakes or holly boughs of yesteryear. Mr Trump announced bravely that once he becomes President ‘We’re all going to be saying, “Merry Christmas” again.’ Well, bully for you, Mr T. You are vocalising what millions of people want and believe, and I bet you know how to treat your pussy (or doggie) at Christmas, too!