Did you have a wonderful Christmas? Then for God’s sake don’t tell me about it. As it happens, I had a perfectly nice time here in London, helped by one sensible decision – I logged out of Instagram. Why? Because I had realised I was drowning in other people’s personal Nativity plays, as they performed Christmas cheer with the zeal of an out-of-work actor auditioning for a solid three-month run as Widow Twankey.
Scrolling through my feed, there was the two year old, briefly dazzled by meeting Santa (not pictured: the rest of the day, when she cried continuously and refused all food and comfort). The smiling family posing with their roast dinner as if Dad had just popped to the next room (reality: Dad with new girlfriend). The heart-warming picture of a visit to Grandma (“shame that she’s an emotional terrorist”).
In social media posts such as these, no one is lying, exactly. But they are curating their lives and repackaging them for public consumption, often at the expense of living them in all their complexity. This was the Christmas when half a dozen of my friends confided that – whisper it – they felt like failures. They weren’t enjoying themselves as much as everyone else seemed to be. Luckily, thanks to the oldest kind of social media, talking, they discovered that they were not alone.
It says something profound (and unsettling) about modern life that we’ve turned “relaxing and having fun” into something it’s possible to flunk. When everything is measurable, the temptation is to stop doing stuff simply because you fancy it. Social media has created an age of envy, and it can feel exhausting.
In 1977, Susan Sontag published an extraordinarily prescient book called On Photography. She was writing at the dawn of truly mass photography, when cameras moved from being cumbersome machines to objects that could be carried in a single hand, or worn around the neck. That also transformed the nature of photography, she argued: “Photography is not practised by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool of power… As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialise, to restate symbolically, the imperilled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family – and, often, is all that remains of it.” Taking pictures of your kids, meanwhile, was treated as evidence that you cared for them. The unphotographed child was a neglected child.
Sontag’s words made me think again about all those Facebook and Instagram posts, and what I saw this time was something else: guilt. For many of us, seeing our families involves epic car journeys, complicated train rides or even long-haul flights. We can’t pop round for a cuppa, and the time and distance involved in reaching them places us in a perpetual state of low-level anxiety that we’re not making enough effort. Taking a blizzard of photographs feels like the least we can do.
These feelings must be incredibly common, but we don’t talk about them enough. Spending Christmas in London brings home the scale of internal migration Britain has experienced in the last few decades. The streets are empty, the shops are shut, you can even get a seat on the train. (You could, if you wanted, sprawl across three of them, like a guest at a Roman banquet.)
The story of Jesus’s birth has extra resonance to twenty- and thirty-somethings in the capital, who all “return to their own town” in winter for a census of sorts, as their families appraise their lives in That London. (“You look tired!”, “Are you working too hard?”, “How you get on the Tube every day, with all those people, beats me”.) Many of the people here are really from somewhere else, and they make a yearly pilgrimage home to fix their parents’ WiFi.
For many of my generation, Christmas has become a complicated negotiation across scattered families (“we were at his parents last year, so it’s mine this year; but we’ll go to his on the Friday and stay through to New Year so they don’t feel left out”) which leaves them more exhausted than before the holiday started. Many of my friends’ parents are retired, and yet are mysteriously resistant to travelling themselves. Others are divorced, leading some couples with young children to attempt something close to an assault course over 48 hours, alternating between driving and eating turkey.
Yet too many Facebook pictures don’t show any of this stuff, life’s equivalent of the serene swan’s legs furiously paddling away underwater. Now, my family really is scattered – parents in one city, me another, two children in a different continent, another in Solihull. And photographs have brought us together: through the family WhatsApp group I can see my nephews and nieces growing up, tall and tanned in the Antipodean sun. I know that it rained on Christmas Day in Auckland. Thanks to FaceTime, I could almost feel the heat in Perth by seeing how my sister’s family was visibly wilting.
But these are private moments, more likely to feature grumpy expressions or drizzle than toothy smiles and cloudless skies. Accordingly, sarcasm is allowed; sometimes we revel in taking deliberately crap photos, or capturing particularly awful moments (the tent collapsing, a temper tantrum, chocolate sauce gone everywhere). It’s life. There are no Likes to be had.
How was your Christmas? Mine wasn’t award-winning, or a day I’ll remember forever, but it was absolutely fine. And I’m absolutely fine with that.
This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions