Sunday, 23 December 2012

You say Merry, I say Christmas.

When I was but a wee bairn, at the tender age of six (or possibly seven), I was in my first play. If I ever become a famous actor, I'd like it to become common knowledge that I popped my theatrical cherry at Juniper Hill Elementary School, in that seminal production, "Santa and the Dragon". You know, that famous Christmas tale. About Santa Claus. And a fucking dragon.

Fa la la la la, la la la la!

And yes, I played the dragon, because I am awesome.

I was very "method". I did the Daniel Day-Lewis thing of living as a dragon for weeks. I took up smoking two packs a day so I could feel what it was like to breathe fire, and for the duration I lived in the cupboard under the stairs, which I referred to as my "lair". Family members and friends were to refer to me only as "Dragon".

It seems a little strange to me that this school play was done in England, in the village of Flackwell Heath (which I agree sounds like something Tolkien might have invented for a joke), rather than America. It's one of the little, ironic quirks of the Western world that Britain -- a predominantly secular society -- likes its Christmasses just as Christian as can be, whereas the US -- where you can't spit out your chewing tobacco without hitting a church (and making that little "pting!" noise) -- tends to treat Christmas more as an all-you-can-shop buffet of commercial largesse.

Admittedly, I'm generalising, and there's a lot of crossover. In Britain, Christmas (along with everything else) is becoming more and more Americanised. Soon we'll have "Boxing Day, brought to you by Starbucks". And in the US, I'm sure there are plenty of places that I simply haven't visited where the term "Baby Jesus" is on the tips of everyone's lips. Or at very least, the tips of everyone's guns. That's how people communicate with each other down South right? They just fire off Morse code into the sky. If I had my own personal arsenal of guns, that's what I'd do.

Anyway, I'm surprised that my school play wasn't "Baby Jesus and the Dragon", at very least, or a Nativity scene with a few wise men and a herd of dragons standing about. What is the collective noun for a group of dragons? A platoon? A cavalcade? A thunder? Holy shit, a thunder of dragons. That sounds amazing. My point is...the Brits love their Christian iconography at Christmas. They love hymns about King Wenceslas looking out of a window (or something like that) and hymns about Baby Jesus getting presents. I mean, sure, their favourite Christmas song literally has the word "faggot" in it, but they like hymns too.

No good pictures of hymns or school nativity plays, so here's another sick picture of a dragon, just because...

In the UK, Christianity is kind of the default setting. The Church of England is the official church. I vividly recall having the Bible read to us in school assemblies, and to this day I remember getting excited when we started the "New Testament", which I assumed had just come out. "The new, updated testament!" I thought. "Finally, we can move on from those boring stories about olden-timey Jews in the desert and have some modern stories about God battling robots or teaming up with Batman." Needless to say, I was disappointed.

This collusion of church and state, rare in the US if you don't live in one of the more nutjobby parts of the country and generally frowned upon, has the opposite effect of what you might expect. Religion is watered down. When it's something you're forced to sit through in school, like everything else it becomes pretty boring. Not once did I ever feel like I was hearing the word of God; I thought I was listening to a series of mostly boring stories droned at us by our headmistress. I only perked up when she mentioned anything about "locusts", which always sounded epic.

Fa la la la la, la la la locusts!

At Christmas, this stuff was ramped up to 11, and we all had to sing boring songs about some fucking baby. Who was this baby, I thought, and what made him so bloody special? I'm not sure people realise that when you say the phrase "died for your sins" to a young boy, his first thought is, "What the hell is a sin?" and his second thought is, "AWESOME. DEATH." A child has no concept of sin; that's something adults invent and impose on them.

When I moved to San Francisco, all that stopped. My parents aren't religious, and the only time I even saw a Bible was in hotel rooms. Christmas lost all its Christian edge. People seemed less interested in singing hymns and more interested in trampling each other to death outside of Walmarts.  If Bill O'Reilly really wants to preach some bollocks about a "War on Christmas", he should look no further than the rapacious capitalism and commercialism he no doubt loves. It's not true that Coca-Cola invented the modern image of Santa Claus, but the fact that so many Americans believe it says something about the faith they have in the power of their own advertising.

Which brings me full circle. A few years ago, there was a national outcry when Madame Tussaud's created a nativity scene featuring the Beckham family.  It also featured Kylie Minogue as the Angel, Tony Blair, George W Bush,  as the Magi while Hugh Grant, Samuel L Jackson, and comedian Graham Norton were cast as shepherds. They missed a trick by not having a button on the Samuel L. Jackson waxwork that you could press to make him do THIS. "And you will know...MY NAME IS THE LORD..." etc. Oh, well.

Man, Samuel L. Jackson really is in everything, isn't he?

Anyway, there was an outcry. A teacher from Coventry even went so far as to travel down to London and personally deface it. However, the Beckham scene didn't generally offend people (mostly, we laughed), and certainly not on a religious level (yes, Church leaders complained, but whatever). It felt more like an affront on our childhoods. See, the nativity scene isn't so much about religion in the UK as it is an image from our collective youths.  That was Christmas to us. Sure, we don't believe any of that horseshit, but who doesn't like the baby Jesus? He is, after all, the best Jesus. 

And so, plenty of secular, liberal-minded people who would think nothing of an octopus and a lobster in a school nativity play somehow felt that this was a step too far down the avenue of tackiness. It just seemed a little too...well...American.

Ironically, it also seemed too American to get offended by it and start talking about a "War on Christmas". So we laughed instead.

In the end, something about the dysfunction of the whole thing felt just like Christmas after all.

1 comment:

  1. I demand read more about 'santa and the dragon,' how can you leave us hanging without even a basic plot outline?