The French are often labelled a nation of depressives, a reputation bolstered by the fact that the country has some of the highest rates for antidepressant use and clinical depression. This national image seems to be even more accurate around the festive season. My own GP confessed that she always has a peak of patients developing psychosomatic symptoms in the weeks preceding Christmas. All of them acknowledge dreading les fêtes and end up leaving the doctors with a prescription of some sort.
No one in my family likes Christmas. From my mother, who wishes she didn’t have to spend three days cooking, to my father who anxiously watches his weight and my granny who complains that it reminds her of the missing loved ones, this is clearly an ordeal for everybody. To escape from the monotony of this ritual, we decided one year to drive an hour away from home to celebrate it in Spain. Unfortunately, we hadn’t anticipated that Spaniards actually liked Christmas – so much that as early as Christmas Eve, all the shops were closed and the streets deserted. We were left in the vacuum of a cultural gap.
It’s after moving abroad that I realised that my disdain for Christmas was not universally shared. I’ve since discovered with incredulity that Christmas decorations are on display as early as October in every Italian town, and while in Rome in February, some festive lights were still illuminated when I last visited. Beyond the fact that it is not environmentally friendly, I question the pleasure of celebrating it over one third of the year. As William Shakespeare wrote in sonnet 106, one only appreciates the return of summer after a harsh winter.
Christmas’s religious dimension has almost been erased by the commercial side of things, even in countries with a significant Christian community
The sole satisfying grounds I can find to justify the invasion of Christmas on our streets is that it is a highly lucrative celebration. The switching on of Christmas lights in Paris, and particularly on the Champs-Elysées, is a much-hyped ceremony, launched by the city’s mayor and a celebrity. The biggest department stores secretly prepare their Christmas shop windows a year in advance to attract the largest number of customers they can during the festive period. This isn’t unique to France, of course, and the same trends are obvious on Dublin’s Grafton St and Henry St.
As a result, Christmas’s religious dimension has almost been erased by the commercial side of things, even in countries with a significant Christian community. The main shopping street of the Italian town I lived in installed loudspeakers broadcasting sentimental 1950s American Christmas songs all day long for the occasion. Things are not much better in Ireland or in Britain.
As someone who was born in a country where Christmas isn’t universally celebrated, I have a few questions. What is so delightful about a celebration whose hero is an easy-going old man wearing a ridiculous costume and driving a sledge drawn by flying reindeers? What is so fulfilling about cutting down millions of Christmas trees (33 million each year just for the US) to adorn them with glass baubles and tacky garlands? A nostalgia for childhood? For the “good old times”, as depicted by post-war Coca-Cola posters? Or just a nauseous taste for kitsch?
I shiver every time I recall the 2014 Christmas TV advertisement for a famous supermarket chain that was broadcast in Britain during each ad break for three months. Two corny fairies fly over a town’s roofs and cast spells to transform people’s random possessions into gifts or solve their everyday miseries. The usual clichéd jazz music associated with Christmas plays in the background, and of course, it’s snowing copiously. When was the last time we had a white Christmas? Apparently it was in 2010 for Ireland and northern France, while for those who grew up further south, it hasn’t happened since the 1990s. So why are we obliged to suffer this collection of idiocies that do not reflect our reality?
The enthusiasm for a stereotypical Christmas might be blamed on adults who like to foster the illusion that we are living in a fairy tale for at least one season of the year. Yet my granny gets the point when she says that Christmas is the worst period for those who have lost someone. During Christmas, we are compelled to conform to the ideal of a happy family, and those who are left aside by society or for economic reasons feel all the more miserable.
The abundance of overconsumption during the festive season may seem indecent in a time of economic downfall. France has still not recovered from the 2008 crisis, and the pressure to consume is a hard blow for many French. I know a mother of three who has just taken out a loan to buy Christmas presents for her children.
The typical French Christmas menu isn’t exactly designed for a country whose families are still recovering from a financial crisis. The starters are enough to ruin the host: foie gras (which is anything but cheap), oysters (at least three dozen for four guests) and smoked salmon, served with wine or champagne. The rest of the meal varies according to personal tastes, but the quantities are always no less than the double of what the guests can actually consume. This process is repeated for New Year’s Eve. The French do not even have the possibility to recover from their abuses the next day, as December 26th is not a bank holiday.
Is the French resentment towards Christmas also a result of a different attitude towards the family? The cultural divide between northern Europe and southern Europe does not explain the gap in how Christmas is appreciated. I have heard many French complaining about the fact that Christmas forces us to visit people we normally are not interested in or cannot bear It also forces us to visit our family to simply to ease our conscience, and maybe the French do not cope with this situation as well as others.
Whether we like it or not, the way Christmas is celebrated in our part of the world is a succession of hackneyed myths embedded in syrupy conventions
You can argue that the French admit more openly their aversion for this tradition and that the great majority of people from many other countries feel the same, but don’t dare say it. It remains a taboo because people who regard Christmas with distaste are judged as anti-social neurotics. Of course the French can’t claim the exclusivity of despising Christmas, and some of them even enjoy it, yet we should claim the right to dislike this celebration without shame or guilt.
Whether we like it or not, the way Christmas is celebrated in our part of the world is a succession of hackneyed myths embedded in syrupy conventions. Some people find its commercial dimension revolting or demanding. Others regret that it has erased Christmas’s origins. For those concerned with the environment, the season is one more ecological disaster. Finally, we have been told many lies about Christmas: it is not true that everyone takes pleasure in overindulging and cooking for days, and it is hypocritical to assert that everyone has a family to gather with or enjoys doing so.
My own main aversion to Christmas is that it is an imposed convention, and I would prefer to decide when I want to meet with my family without being told to do so. Added to that, there is the obligation to offer presents to relatives one is not particularly close to, and everybody will agree that the only winners in this story are children. At least they do not have to worry about buying something for their mother-in-law.