Gerard Howlin: The bright lights of our globalised Christmas don’t spread to all

Gerard Howlin: The bright lights of our globalised Christmas don’t spread to all

I take a strict view on Christmas. It begins on December 24 but not before. It concludes on January 6. As the memorial it commemorates recedes in our post-Christian society, the scale of festival surrounding it engorges.

There is something repellent about Christmas in November. It is bad taste and bad manners. It’s an intrusion into a separate season which can be appreciated for itself. Leaves are meant to fall and the days get shorter uninterrupted by glaring lights or loud jingles that guzzle carbon.

That battle is well and truly lost, of course. Christmas, or whatever it actually is, has been in progress for weeks now. It will not so much end as slump between mid-afternoon and early evening on December 25.

The scale of commercialisation is culturally jolting. It is synthetic and frantic. It creates tension and leaves debts. The disconnect between the supposed meaning of the occasion and its now almost universal application is satire on our society.

Having abandoned the cult, it seems those who shun it are in bondage to its forms. Many seem eager to imitate the aspects of that cult which they most deplore. What excess in Christendom equals in scale the environmental depravity required for our Happy Christmas.

Forests are denuded and replaced by global monoculture so that cocoa is farmed to feed our lust for chocolate. Shops groan with choices that come from an unsustainable abuse of the earth. Those goods are transported globally, at further cost to the environment.

Finally so that our tastes can be whetted, they are cosseted in layers of packaging which is useless, and poisonous. There is nothing specifically Christmassy about any of this. It is an all-year-round phenomenon. But seasonally, commemorating the birth of a child to a displaced family in a manger, it has a special rancour.

Years ago we had a Guaranteed Irish campaign intended to support Irish goods. In a sense, globalisation has brought that back, but for different reasons.

It may indeed be patriotic to favour Irish goods, all things being equal. The new learning is that consuming what is nearer, transported over shorter distances and less intense or intrusive in the environment where it is cultivated, is more sustainable and less destructive. What we mistakenly call Christmas is an orgy of annihilation of the event it purports to mark and the Earth, which he whose birth is commemorated, created.

I am not a puritan. I like feasting. I have slumped between mid-afternoon and early evening. To live and not to know excess would seem a pity. But with such repetition? With such lack of imagination? In such derivative, stencilled forms as to exclude all initiative?

It is not just the baseness but the dullness that is stupefying. And there is the unintended comedy. Gluttony and greed are terrible sins. Their consequences wind their way from every discarded piece of packaging and bucketful of food waste to denuded landscapes and ballooning quantities of carbon in our atmosphere.

People in faraway places bear consequences. We are left with cholesterol and flatulence. It is the actuality and the morality of a maxed-out credit card. The comedy is that we become what we abhor, but don’t realise it.

Now Christmas is in full swing. The tentative Christmas of November, barely warmed by garish lights lit far too early, is over. By being lit for weeks, they have done their work. We have adjusted. It is normalised by early December, by being begun in November. I understand the marketing, and it works.

They have studied us closely and understand our foibles. We are moths to the flame of bright lights. And why not? Surely it is all harmless fun? In part it is. There are lights you can see every Christmas Eve in Dublin. That night on Merchants Quay, opposite the Four Courts in the windows of the Franciscan friary besides Adam and Eve’s Church, each window in a long row is lit with a single candle.

It is light in stillness that is rare and only momentary. On the same street, from the same building, on church steps and in doorways, other lights can be seen most days. It is the flicker of a lighter, heating a small spoon and preparing heroin that will be injected by the addicts who prepare their own unsustainable feast.

Merchants Quay Ireland is here, caring as best it can for them. James Joyce wrote of this place as “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”. Looking, as I pass, is to see a lie. The initial horror is of repulsion. The second thought is pity.

The more considered reflection is, this is me, and perhaps you. Our addictions are sanitised. We are wily about sidestepping social opprobrium. The harm caused is subcontracted perfectly legally to other people and other countries. If you are in the mainstream of this society, consuming more than your weight in the wealth of the world, but leave others to live in the effluent of your consumption, who is more pitiable?

I presume nothing. But it is unlikely many drug addicts are unaware of their situation, and the grip it has on them. Their levels of awareness contrast with the smugness of the mainstream. In the full gush of our bastardised festival, there is no awareness. Even selfishness can’t act as a boundary.

Obesity, lack of exercise, debt that has to be paid back, and the frantic rush in January into gyms with memberships that won’t be utilised might prompt a pause.

BUT no. There is an intensity and a group-think that continues through the generations, for different causes, but with largely the same effect. It is about being in, as distinct from being out. Given the original narrative of the day, which is about outsiders, there is another level of irony.

It is good to have festivals. Occasional excess is part of the rhythm of life. But the globalised, corporate Christmas festival is appalling in its cost, and the money we spend is only a tiny part of that. It is formulaic and depends on dullness. In its creeping mission from one month to another across the calendar, it is polluting the year. The mourning and darkness of November is essential preparation for the great mid-winter feast.

Then there is the joke about who we are. As all belief in the existence of a god made man disappears, His birthday party explodes in size. There is a disconnect and an unhealthy nervousness. There is a self-inflicted need to remember what is no longer felt.

Life is imagined as an extension of lavish window displays.That beats looking in the mirror of course.

More on this topic

'Some stuff we receive is disgraceful': Charity asks public to stop donating soiled or dirty items'Some stuff we receive is disgraceful': Charity asks public to stop donating soiled or dirty items

Gavin And Stacey special will inevitably underwhelm some viewers – Ruth JonesGavin And Stacey special will inevitably underwhelm some viewers – Ruth Jones

In Pictures: Dashing through the streets as Santas run for charityIn Pictures: Dashing through the streets as Santas run for charity

Gift stressbuster: We sort out who gets what and whyGift stressbuster: We sort out who gets what and why

More in this Section

Joe Leogue: Commitment to football grass roots is laudable but devil is in the detail Joe Leogue: Commitment to football grass roots is laudable but devil is in the detail

Fergus Finlay: Bad behaviour goes unpunished for some, so it will continue to happenFergus Finlay: Bad behaviour goes unpunished for some, so it will continue to happen

Michael Clifford: Is Boris Johnson the man for the moment?Michael Clifford: Is Boris Johnson the man for the moment?

Charlie Flanagan: Welcome new citizens to our Irish familyCharlie Flanagan: Welcome new citizens to our Irish family

More by this author

Gerard Howlin: Across Europe, there is a real chill setting in in Jewish communitiesGerard Howlin: Across Europe, there is a real chill setting in in Jewish communities

When the language of politics fails, it speaks for the meanest impulseWhen the language of politics fails, it speaks for the meanest impulse

Howlin’s assured performance can’t mask same, laboured ideasHowlin’s assured performance can’t mask same, laboured ideas

Our golden age began to  diminish when Gay Byrne left the stage Our golden age began to diminish when Gay Byrne left the stage


Lifestyle

As David Attenborough announces new series on plants, we run down some of the weird and wonderful vegetation he might include.11 bizarre plant species from around the world

The weather’s always going to be a key factor on any wedding day — but especially so when the bride works for Met Éireann, writes Eve Kelliher.Wedding of the week: Bride and groom are literally on cloud nine

My wife and I are in our fifties and she has just started using porn. She thinks it will enhance our sex life if we watch it together, but I find the idea a total turn-off.Suzi Godson's Sex Advice: My wife wants us to watch porn together?

As you probably have heard by now, changes to the rules concerning gift vouchers in Ireland came into effect earlier this month, giving consumers more rights when it comes to these popular items.Making Cents: Play your cards right when giving gift vouchers this Christmas

More From The Irish Examiner