Often at the start of our constitutional bicycle outings – such as we took this wintry morning in early December – we jokingly announce the intended direction of our ride by trumpeting, “La route précise!” It’s our vernacular for whatever passage we normally take when bicycling – something we’ve traditionally done throughout the year. Habit has succeeded to insinuate everything we do. This year however has afforded two exceptions to that once favourable rule. First because we’re in Canada this winter, it is reasonably assured that we may be unable to bicycle throughout the season. So far we’ve escaped the intolerance of snow – having only to endure the decidedly fresh air – but I suspect that today’s novelty will soon subside. Second the so-called “route précise” faces a further complication because our path is the Ottawa Valley Trail upon the erstwhile railway right-of-way. Because the trail is intended to accommodate snowmobilers in the winter – and because few in their right mind would prefer to walk or cycle upon heavy snow – we rightfully expect to be unable to pursue that path for much longer. So much for la route précise!
Following the stimulation of this morning’s cycle and a subsequent replenishing breakfast of baguette bagel, Camembert cheese, homemade apple sauce and strong Italian coffee, it was time to exercise the further imperative attending any brilliant day; namely, the leisurely automobile drive in the country (especially apt considering today was a Sunday). The weather was uniquely magnificent. The brisk, dry air crystallized the frost in the fields; the sharp north wind buffeted the cottony cattails alongside the road. So too was the expanse of the horizon in the County of Renfrew spectacularly greater than usual now that the leaves have been shaken from the trees and the furrowed ground is bare. The sunlight stretched in lengthy oblongs across the fields and road, a reminder of the mutability of life. By entire coincidence when listening to my library of music streamed from my iPhone I was treated to a collection of classical pieces with an underlying theme of Christmas. I am a confessed victim of syrupy Yuletide artistry, whether music, landscape. mistletoe or wreaths. The confluence of brilliant colours, glistening Christmas cards, sparkling lights and foggy, wintry evenings forever animates my spirit!
Unquestionably a corollary of descension to the Yuletide archives is an unmistakeable doppelgänger of Christmas past – that overwhelming dissolution which normally awakens early in the season upon first hearing an archaic rendition of “I’ll be home for Christmas, You can count on me“. Whatever it is that captures these deeply nutritious streams between the fissures of existence – whether the fervour of a religious festivity or the emotion of hope, the commonality is well being and beneficence. It sounds dangerously trite to speak in those maudlin terms but the convictions within any laudable devotion strangely echo the same product whatever the putative cause.
Stig Abell on… Christmas
Christmas will not be traditional this year, but do not worry: Christmas traditions have always had something of a shaky history. The story of the nativity is not even mentioned in two of the four gospels; the two that include it, Matthew and Luke, do not agree on the details; and the details that are included tend to question the tale’s historical veracity.
The “star of wonder” may be real, but the comet it is said to represent was visible in the skies in 12BC. And none of this took place in winter: shepherds “watch their flocks by night” in spring and summer only.
The celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25 was a handy Christian cultural appropriation, borrowing the timing of the pagan winter solstice and the rowdy Roman festival of Saturnalia, which also provided the model for the inappropriate office Christmas party you won’t be having this year.
Does any of this matter? Well, only in the sense that the festival of Christmas does not carry any intrinsic meaning or importance: it takes on whatever significance we wish to bestow on it. Christmas has always been a changing story.
Francis of Assisi is the first recorded person to have a nativity scene. Carols came along in the 16th century, festive
sprigs and mistletoe in the 17th. (Mistletoe has an interesting etymology, by the way: it is from the Anglo-Saxon mistletan, which means “little dung twig”, because its seeds are spread by bird droppings.)
Charles Dickens is credited as a sort of father of the modern Christmas. You may choose to believe the story that, on Dickens’s death in June 1870, a Drury Lane barrow girl was heard to exclaim: “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
Dickens is also the progenitor of Christmas charity appeals: he followed A Christmas Carol a year later with The Chimes to try to convert society as he had converted Scrooge.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by an American department store to fill a free colouring book. In Japan a marketing campaign 46 years ago has made the day synonymous with KFC, and such is demand that people have to place their orders for a “party barrel” weeks in advance.
What I am saying is this: Christmas is as special as you want to make it. By all means cling to the trappings and trimmings, butdosobecauseyouwantto—anditissafeto—not because you believe in the inviolability of tradition.
Stig Abell is a presenter on Times Radio