The festive season is once again upon us; a time of tradition, or, as it could be more accurately described, of serious imaginative deficit.
Take Christmas trees, for example; a particularly heinous tradition for which Prince Albert is to blame. Having brought one to the UK from Germany in 1840, it’s since become customary to uproot over seven million trees a year, and despite their having taken up to ten years to grow, subject them to the cruel fate of being momentarily mocked with garish adornments, before being tossed in the landfill.
And as though the 178-year-old traditions weren’t enough, we now also have to tolerate the newfangled ones. This year the whole rigmarole feels particularly relentless. In London, it’s been weeks since once-favoured pubs succumbed to the nausea-inducing Hygge aesthetic, and cranberries have appeared in almost every supermarket sandwich.
Yet those daring to voice complaints about Christmas are often dubbed a “Scrooge”; a supposed insult that seems a little unfair on Scrooge considering he actually got a lot right about Christmas.
Charles Dickens’s character is brilliant because he is the ultimate Christmas straggler, a relatable figure and an inspiration to us all. A “Christmas straggler” is my name for those who find themselves without a fixed tradition at Christmas time. For the straggler, friends with whom you spend the majority of your time deliver the ultimate betrayal by suddenly abandoning you to a newfound tribalism, clannishly retreating to other parts the country to spend time with families you didn’t know they had, or liked.
The straggler must instead encroach on another family’s Christmas in order to avoid spending the day alone. Scrooge was very much a Christmas straggler, having spent Christmas eve wandering through his past, present and future with a series of ghosts, before winding up at his nephew’s house on Christmas Day, where he is invited to join their feast. Many of us will have hosted a Christmas straggler or two – a recently divorced work colleague, a neighbour whose family live abroad, a decrepit great aunt sat in the corner who doesn’t seem to belong to anyone.
Having myself been such a Christmas straggler, I know that it’s a strange position to occupy. Most families have really particular traditions, any deviation from which is considered sacrilege. Navigating these traditions is a minefield. For some, midnight mass is a requirement, while others will balk at the suggestion of spending the countdown to Christmas anywhere but the pub. Are presents before lunchtime, or afterwards? And does the Christmas straggler give and receive presents, or instead look on silently as the other family exchanges their gifts? Feeling alienated by Christmas traditions sucks, but what we can learn from Scrooge is that in many ways, the outsider at Christmas is an enlightened figure, with enough distance from rigidly enforced practices to reflect on them cynically, and potentially reject them altogether.
In Scrooge’s case, his experience as a Christmas straggler teaches him that being stingy and rude makes you unpopular, leading him to break with old habits and learn a new Christmas tradition of charity and benevolence. Scrooge’s personal epiphany played out in the real-life public arena, as a Christmas Carol is said to capture the zeitgeist of the mid-Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday. The spirit of Christmas described by Dickens lives on today, less recognisable for its charitable content, and more for its emphasis on excessive spending.
Waking up on Christmas morning with a renewed generosity, Scrooge embarks on a manic spending splurge that rivals the frenzied behaviour of last-minute Oxford street shoppers, as he excitedly implores the first person he bumps into on Christmas morning to buy a turkey twice the size of a child, described as being so large that it can hardly stand on its own legs “without surely snapping them”. Genetically modified oversized birds remain firmly part of our Christmas tradition, along with Prince Albert’s fir trees, and a lust for spending. Although we’ve retained many of tropes of the Victorian Christmas, the emphasis on charity and community has somewhat diminished.
The insistence on secular Christmas rituals that emphasise the importance of nuclear or biological families, and which show no concern for excessive waste, seems more suited to the Victorian period than our own era, where environmentalism is a pressing concern, and families are more diverse and dispersed than ever.
Scrooge was a pioneer of the Christmas straggler tradition, utilising his position as someone on the fringes of the festivities to re-evaluate the true meaning of a Victorian Christmas, and in doing so became a symbolic figure of social change. The Christmas straggler knows better than most the arbitrariness of certain traditions, and Scrooge has taught us that we have the power to reshape our Christmas present, liberating ourselves from the shackles of past traditions.
If my happy decision this year to not bother with a tree, or succumb to the pressure of smiling dotingly on the mere mention of anything vaguely Christmas related makes me a Scrooge, that’s fine – it’s a title I’m happy to adopt.