Questions and Fairylights

04/12/2014 17:57 GMT | Updated 02/02/2015 10:59 GMT

And so it came to pass that primary schools began to drop the traditional Nativity Play from their winter schedules, favouring instead a Winter Celebration which offended nobody and in which everyone got a part.

Sacrilege?

I'm not sure.

Exhausted teachers have been doling out the essay title about whether Christmas has become too commercialized since the baby Jesus first set eyes on the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Throughout the UK, this week, hands of the well-meaning and the all-knowing have been pressed together in the steeple position, with thoughts thought and wise words spoken about a country on a journey to the dogs.

And maybe it is sad, in one way, not seeing the innocent eyes of childhood lit up by candles or by fairylights, gazing out in wonderment from a white-gowned angel with a tinsel halo. Perhaps it really is sacrilege not to see a row of shepherds with their Mums' best tea-towels on their heads and those cool trainers with the impact-initiated red lights peeking out from underneath their robes. All that shuffling. All those forgotten lines. That determination to get every child a part in the crucial manger scene, even if that means someone playing the back end of one of the lowing cattle. Somehow, maybe a less traditional winter celebration pageant, with rapping snowflakes and a snowman doing Gangnam Style can't quite compensate: can't produce those sentimental, happy tears among the grown-ups watching and thinking back to the time when Christmas was magical to them.

Because magical is not something that Christmas seems to me, right now. The midnight assembly line of writing all those cards... the messages you write, with half an eye on that night's Strictly, which you didn't have time to watch when it was shown and which you're really only sort of watching now, which you suspect will receive only the most cursory of glances from people even busier and more tired than you are. The shopping trips, the traffic jams: the festivities of Black Friday as people fight, posteriors aloft, over TVs so vast they can barely even wrestle them out of one another's grasping arms?

Peace on Earth. Goodwill to all men? Again. I'm not sure.

And what have we to epitomize what Christmas is like, here, now, this year, with traditions like Nativity Plays drifting away, Christmas cards feeling like empty paper air-kisses and retail festivities feeling nasty, brutish and short-tempered?

We have our Christmas advertisements on TV. With the biggest stores spending millions to set out their stalls, it almost feels as though an evening's viewing of the Christmas 2014 offer is one giant product placement for Christmastime itself. And what a strange time it seems to be. Hostilities stopping in the trenches for a game of football... and a Sainsbury's chocolate bar, because 'Christmas is for sharing', even if you go back to slaughtering one another next day. Magical things happening over groceries, underwear and sensible lambswool jumpers because there are M&S fairies sorting life out for people in some sort of hybrid of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, 'because Christmas is better with Magic and Sparkle'. Terrifying five-bird roasts from Iceland, which, given that they contain both pork and streaky bacon, are clearly the living (or frozen) proof that pigs can fly, and clearly explain 'Why Peter Goes to Iceland'. It goes on. Morrison's 'Makes Christmas special'. Littlewoods will 'Make your Christmas dreams come true', and people are still commenting that they know that 'Holidays are coming' because they've seen that Coca Cola advert with the truck, not because they've seen the date on the calendar.

But best of all is the John Lewis advert. Now don't get me wrong: I like it. I like penguins: they seem to have an almost anthropomorphic charm, which makes them seem lovable as well as cute. All those documentaries have told us that they mate for life and undergo extraordinary hardship to protect their young. And so the scene is set: a small boy whose best friend is a penguin; a penguin who turns out to be bereft, longing for love amid the fun games of Lego and camping and football and tree-decorating he gets to play with his small boy friend, rewarded now and then with a filched fish finger (one can only assume it's a Waitrose fish finger, or maybe one of those Jamie Oliver ones with all the extra adjectives). Anyway: the boy realizes the penguin wants a girlfriend as he notices him gazing longingly at couples, like a hormonal teenager at the Christmas disco, and presents him with a female penguin on Christmas morning. Now, casting aside the uncomfortable interpretation of the boy as pimp providing a breeding partner for his single,er, wingman brings me to what I find at the heart of this year's John Lewis ad. It's loneliness. Dreadful, heartbreaking, aching loneliness, and you see it acknowledged in just a split second on the face of the boy's mother, who, watching her son totally absorbed in playing with his grubby old toy penguin and its fluffy, perfect mate on Christmas day, recognizes how her son has projected his own loneliness onto the cuddly toy penguin which, actually, really is his best friend. An imaginary friend embodied by a cuddly toy wrapped up in pathos and a very well-chosen soundtrack. 'Give someone the Christmas they've been dreaming of'? This winter's most talked-about Christmas advert tells me that we're a very lonely, isolated crowd of people, dreaming of 'real love' and genuine friendship, something perhaps as illusory as a fairy, as imaginary as Santa Claus...

I was never chosen to play Mary, back in the old days when my primary school was doing its Nativity Play. When I was really young, one year, I got to play half a wall. I was the wall on one side of the Innkeeper's door, and someone else who was also very quiet was the wall on the other side. We both had to wear red jumpers. One of the boys got to be the door, and take a big step backwards when Joseph knocked on his chest to find out whether there was any room at the Inn. In my last year at Primary school I thought I had a chance of that coveted part of Mary, but no: I got to be the Narrator, telling the story as the chosen ones acted it out, standing at the front of the stage in half darkness, turning, sometimes, to watch as the others reflected the glitter of footlights and candles and halos made of tinsel, enacting the story I'd been asked to tell...

And now? I'm finding new Christmas stories as the old ones slip away. I'm reading between the lines of tales I'm seeing on TV. I'm wondering about truths from all those years ago...

I'm being the narrator all over again.

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