The Christmas lights in my classroom sum up how I’m feeling about Christmas time this year.
Bright, colour-changing lights spell out the words Bah Humbug, strung across the front of my classroom. I’ve used the lights for years: students laugh indulgently at the Dickensian reference and every year, someone asks me: “But Miss, do you really not like Christmas?”
Like all the best things: it’s complicated.
Of course I like Christmas, but there’s an element of the famous Catullus love poem I remember studying at school: Odi et amo, I hate and I love. I’ve had a few Christmases marked by serious family illnesses or difficulties which are memorable enough for their misery to make me dread the entire season. The first sighting of a shop window Christmas display kind of makes my heart sink with the stony dread of ‘Not Again’. But there’s hope as well as dread, set in a teetering balance of anxiety. What if someone takes ill again? What if people don’t get on? But maybe they’ll be well, and maybe they’ll be happy… it’s a bit like waiting to see whether the weather makes the roads impassible or safe, except that for family health and happiness there’s no reliable forecast.
So much about Christmas makes me worry. Our students sit Christmas examinations and get reports: it feels so much as though Christmas itself is an exam for grown-ups, with a report expected afterwards from friends and relatives. Will I get the right gifts and cards for everyone, will anyone be inadvertently left out or offended, will the cards get there on time, and if I post them early, will I get the conveniently-late card from someone enclosing their new address, so that I feel as though I’ve failed? Will I get the requisite ingredients for the Christmas catering? I mean, it’s practically the law that everybody has to have the same thing, whether they like it or not. Food-shopping just before Christmas, with everyone pushing for the best turkey and ham, the roundest sprouts, the tastiest cranberry sauce and the plummiest plum pudding is like one of those tasks on The Apprentice where contestants have to buy certain items before nightfall, and if you lose, you might get fired. Fail at the family Christmas and your family might fix you with that familiar steely glare, extending that pointing finger, and hiss ‘you’re fired’. Fired as a family member. Fired as someone worthwhile. Fired as the sort of person who ‘does Christmas’ because only Scrooges and moral reprobates do not…
Oh: there’s so much about Christmas that I like. Of course I love it when people remember me – a card, a present, a simple happy Christmas wish or text or tweet. That simple joy of feeling liked, accepted, cared about… the minor avalanche of post, the shiny packaging, the late night gatherings, the hugs and smiles. It all makes wintertime so much more bearable. I love the decorations: the lights shining from windows, the tree reflected in the black-lit windows as you let it shine out to the street in turn, municipal Christmas trees leaning at an angle, yet surviving the harsh winter winds.
The fairylight letters in my classroom glow and change every few seconds. They’re almost imperceptible when the room is fully lit, but in the darkness or twilight the lights shine brightly. They change from Christmassy red and green to blue and pink, to pastel pink and jade, to gold and red and back again, in some kind of random pattern. I know the students who seem to be listening more carefully to me are actually mesmerised by the lights above my head.
The hope of Christmastime is hard to spot when everything around us is still bright. In the darkness it shines a bit more brightly, but it’s a hope that changes all the time when we stop to examine it. It might be a gently, pale and flickering, just-about-visible hope; another day it might be bright and traditional and definite, with all the typical expectations of seasonal goodwill. It might fade to nothing or solidify in one block colour. It might seem to blend into the background, but it’s still there: even when we feel that Christmas is just what Ebenezer Scrooge believed, ‘a humbug’, a nonsensical encumbrance, it still brings light. Ok: it’s the artifice of fairylights. Ok: we choose to turn them on to cheer ourselves up at the darkest time of year. Ok: we know that so much of it all is deliberately created to make us spend, to boost the retail sector and replace real happiness with ‘stuff’. But it’s still hope. Maybe it’s superficial, but it’s so much better than despair…
So no: I don’t hate Christmas. The fairylight Bah Humbug in my classroom just about sums it up. The teetering balance of love and hate, hope and despair, spirituality and spending. The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future haunt dark corners, but the lights shine out to remind us why Christmas is still worth so much more than what it costs.