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The survivor's guide to Christmas

Boz magazine, 56: 10-11, December 1998

Brian J Ford

It’s Christmas - the greatest birthday celebration of the year. But how much do we know about it all? I can now reveal that Jesus was a strange chap, physically very like Yasser Arafat but without the good looks. He was a short, fat Jew with halitosis, dandruff and ingrowing toe-nails. No wonder he never married. How do I know these things? Well, I don’t; but a lack of knowledge has never stopped people from creating images of Jesus in the past. There are only two things about which we can be certain. First is the fact that he was nothing like the popular image of a tall, slender European-looking chap with blue eyes and fair skin. People of Aramaic stock look very, very different. Yasser Arafat comes much closer. The second fact about which we can be sure is that December 25th is certainly not the birthday of Jesus. Why, even the year is wrong.

Christmas is fun. The celebrations, lights, decorations and self-indulgence are the ideal mid-winter restorative. Now that we allow the last days of Christmas to merge with the first days of the New Year celebrations, it has become the second great holiday of the year. Tacking onto it the birthday of a great religious icon is an irrelevance; the celebration we now know as Christmas has existed for thousands of years. December 25th was traditionally celebrated as the birth date of the Iranian deity Mithra, Sun of Righteousness. By AD 336, Christmas was being celebrated in Rome, and our festivities stem from that. The ancient Romans used to give gifts to the poor and to children, and decorate their homes with greenery and lights. The eastern part of the Roman Empire preferred to celebrate the day on 6th January, and many sects still celebrate Christmas on that day. Teutonic pagan celebrations used to mark mid-winter with Yule logs and Yule cakes, and these all became part of our present-day celebrations. Most of our major holidays - from Easter, with its pre-Christian eggs as symbols of fertility, to Christmas, with pagan decorations of evergreen vegetation - are far more ancient than Christianity.

The craze for turkey as the main meal at Christmas makes no sense at all. Until the Spanish colonised America, turkeys were unknown to us. The Christmas turkey is an unhealthy bird, unnaturally reared in crowded circumstances and so deformed that it cannot even stand up. As a meat it is flavourless; as a meal it is dry. We avoid turkeys at Christmas, and prefer to choose from beef and oysters, venison, game (or individual chickens, one per person), a rack of mutton or a monstrous goose. One favourite of mine is a whole salmon cooked in dill and parsley: you serve half of it on the table for Christmas dinner, and then let the lower half go cold. That is served cold with mayonnaise for Boxing Day, turned over and set on a bed of salad. Almost anything is better than turkey.

One of the greatest problems of mid-winter is the so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder, known to the medical fraternity by the acronym of SAD. Like most smart acronyms, the abbreviation was dreamt up first, and the description fitted round it later. Stimulation of the retina by sunlight triggers the release of melatonin, which regulates mood. It is conjectured that low levels of illumination in the northern winter (with a concomitant lowering of melatonin) leads to a sense of depression and general gloom. Therapy has been offered in the form of exposure to bright lights, which is said to trigger the release of melatonin and a restoration of cheerfulness. That may help some people, but the best answer must be an atmosphere of celebration and goodwill. It’s the one season when we spoil ourselves, and when we actually relax. Summer holidays are strenuous by comparison (indeed, most people need a holiday to get over the effects) but Christmas emphasises goodwill to all men and highlights the family as society’s source of strength.

The highlight of the decorations is the Christmas tree. Ever since the time of Prince Albert the tree of choice has been the Norway spruce, Picea abies. In recent years there have been other trees added to the list, including some which are claimed not to drop their leaves. You need to remember two things about the traditional Christmas tree. First, do not regard it as a tree, but as a cut flower. It needs water. The base of the trunk should be standing in a container of tap-water which is regularly topped up. If it is given plenty to drink it will hold onto its leaves far longer.

Secondly, don’t try to plant a Christmas tree in the garden after the holiday, for it is most unlikely to work. The lifting of the tree leaves most of the fine roots behind. Fir trees rely on a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi, known as a mycorrhiza, and this is also left behind when the tree is pulled from the soil. Small trees can be transplanted, but the majestic specimen you’ll want at home stands little chance of survival in the garden.

If there is a danger from Christmas it is the hangover. The best cure is plenty of non-alcoholic fluid to drink, and vitamin C is said to work wonders. Aspirin is an excellent headache cure. This wonder-drug does tend to make the stomach lining bleed (which is the bad news) but it has a unique combination of actions which are exceedingly valuable. It reduces a fever, controls inflammation, helps conquer pain and regularises blood coagulation. Unless it causes you problems, I always think that aspirin is the ideal standby for Christmas over-indulgence.

I have saved the best news until last. The ancient celebrations marked the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year, when the sun rises above our horizon and soon disappears again. In fact the shortest day is around 21st December, and Christmas comes a few days later. That’s why it is so special to me. By Christmas morning the days are already starting to draw out again, ready for next summer. Sunset is only two minutes later, but it’s a start. I’ll drink to that.

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