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?
This is an extract from Joan Collins's Christmas Notebook.