Melanie McDonagh

Join the counter culture, continue Christmas

Join the counter culture, continue Christmas
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The great Joan Collins, this paper’s occasional diarist, was quick off the mark in putting up her Christmas decorations… around November, I recall. But the really sane and sensible thing to do is to go retro and be late taking them down. Today is, I need hardly say, the Twelfth Day of Christmas when the three wise men turned up at Bethlehem with their gold frankincense and myrrh. Happy Epiphany.

But in happier days, viz, before Christmas was commercialised last century, and in even happier times before the Reformation, the season didn’t turn out like a light. It went into a kind of slow-burn right down to Candlemas on 2 February, forty days after Christmas — viz, the feast of the Purification of the Virgin. Michael Carter of English Heritage is, sound man, now banging the drum for the old concept of the Long Christmas. So, the greenery stays up until the 2 February — you can get some fresh holly and ivy in now — and English Heritage properties don’t resemble M&S on New Year’s Day, with the gold and sparkle all of a sudden replaced by grim athleisure-wear and vegan alternatives to the things you actually want to eat.

Even if you’re not a stickler for the church calendar, this makes psychological sense. No sane human being can take a look at January weather and think that this is the ideal time to be giving up meat and drink. Nope, this is a time when you need all the comfort you can get — and that’s even before you take lockdown into consideration. Yet a dispiriting half a million people have signed up for the Veganuary challenge, i.e. to forego meat and dairy for the month of January. It’s nuts, in every sense. We need stews, broths and comfort food right now, not a dozen ways with avocados. And we need a drink (unless you’ve got an alcohol problem obvs) — this is the time to resuscitate your cocktail menu and drink port.

You want to go counter-cultural? You want to blow a big fat raspberry at the way our entire calendar is dictated by big retailers — and confusingly, the low-fat vegan stuff sits side by side in supermarkets with premature Valentine merchandise? Well, don’t give anything up until Lent, which isn’t until mid-February. By then the weather will be with you.

Nick Groom, in an excellent book, The Seasons sums up the contemporary malaise:

It was the Victorians who nominated Twelfth Night as the end of Christmas... in the seventeenth century, the greenery would stay up until Candlemas… But it was in the interests of nineteenth century commercial society to get everyone back to work promptly.

Today, decoarations go up alarmingly early… and they also come down much earlier. The season of Christmas-tide has, in other words, shifted forward as if it now expresses and impatient and premature desire for gratification. The result is that there are two cold months of winter following Christmas. It is a bleak time and there is little cheer, and spring seems far away — which perhaps accounts for the rising popularity of Valentine’s Day.

Precisely. Except the driving factor isn’t just secularism; it’s also driven by business. So if you want to fight back, buy a Christmas cake in the sales, and call it what it once was, a Twelfth Day cake. All it takes is to say no to abstinence. Not too hard, is it?