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Tuesday 19 December 2017

The Most Wonderful Time...

Christmas should be banned.

There, I've said it. 

For many, Christmas is allegedly a time of joy and wonder, but some will no doubt expend excesses of verbiage on that, so I'm going to talk about the things that we overlook.

Just for fun, though, let's talk about what Christmas really represents.

The history of celebrations at this time of the year tracks back to pre-pagan days, and quite possibly even earlier. The motivation in our deep history should be fairly obvious even to the uninitiated, especially when one looks to heterothermic latitudes. One can see the obvious wish to celebrate surviving the worst of the winter, getting over the hump of the season and into that part of the orbital cycle in which days begin to lengthen and nature starts to look alive again.

This is hardly a mystery, and speaks to the process we all go through in everyday situations in which we divide tasks up, and feel better when we get significant portions out of the way. This can even be reflected in some of the language we use. We might say, for example, that we've 'broken the back' of a piece of work, or even, as I used above, 'gotten over the hump'.

As our history progressed, such celebrations will have become codified and even ritualised, and we can see how we'd apportion significance in terms of the animisms of our earliest religious leanings and even take them forward into the paganist frameworks of our more recent ancient history.

The Romans, bless them, had some really interesting ideas about how to run an empire. Among them was the notion of maintaining, to some degree, the status quo. They cleverly tended to leave administration mechanisms and existing rulers in place, bringing them under the umbrella of the empire and improving their living conditions as reward. This meant they had little to do in terms of genuine conquest, comparatively speaking.

Later, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire*, and then later still, when the empire essentially morphed into the Catholic church, it seemed an obvious move to do something similar with their holy days. The most efficient way to do that was to usurp the existing festivals.

Of course, this was long before the modern commercialisation of them, when Easter, formerly a pagan fertility festival, became about chocolate eggs and Christmas an advert for Coca Cola, largely responsible for our modern vision of the festival, with their liveried version of St Nicholas, became about frenzied spending toward which large portions of our annual labours were geared.

The veneer of glitter and glitz, however, belies the dilapidated anachronism lurking beneath. In previous outings, which can be found in the physics and cosmology section of this very blog, we can find the genuine reason for the season. In DJ! Spin That Shit! for example, we learned about the planet's 23.5° axial tilt, first calculated by Eratosthenes some 2½ centuries before the focus of the modern holiday was even (allegedly) born. 

People talk about it as a time of joy and wonder, while the only wonder I associated with it is wondering why people buy into it.

Having worked for a time in customer service for a large UK retailer, my experience of what's beneath that veneer is far from joyous. It's a time of ridiculous levels of stress and the incurring of crushing debt in the name of something whose best feature is its end. The despicable ways that people treat other people over what amounts to a bit of shopping is something I've never been able to get my head around, especially when the holiday is painted as the season of peace and love. I can tell you from bitter experience that peace and love are the farthest things from the minds of some people when they discover that they should have done their Christmas shopping a bit earlier to avoid disappointment.

And the best of it is that I'm still only talking about the people who actually profess to enjoying it.

This commercialisation has a more sinister side beyond the ridiculous debt that people incur. First, it's inescapable. Everywhere you look for months beforehand there are flashing lights and advertising (and we won't get into the bloody awful dreck that passes for music that was shite to begin with and gets re-released every year and played ad nauseum on the radio and in every public venue). In and of itself, this isn't necessarily a problem, although it could at least wait. The real problem with it being inescapable is that this is a horrible time of year for many, and that's really the motivation for writing this.

For many, what this time of year represents is soul-crushing loneliness. For people who are alone, the outward presentation of all this is nothing more than a reminder of how alone and isolated they are. Even among those who aren't alone in the fullest sense, this can be a very difficult time, because the faux-jollity can isolate those who aren't feeling it. In those with a tendency to depression this can be especially pronounced.

In 2016, the UK mental health charity MIND sponsored some research into this, and it turned up some interesting statistics.

Eleven percent of people surveyed felt unable to cope at Christmas. This figure rises to thirty-one percent among people with mental health problems. Seventeen percent felt lonelier at Christmas than at any other time, rising to thirty-nine percent among those with mental health issues. Some of this harks back to those stress factors I mentioned earlier, with twenty-eight percent saying they felt pressure to have the 'perfect' Christmas.

One factor that seems to play an important part these days is social media, with people suffering from mental health issues being almost twice as likely to compare their Christmas to that of others on social media.

It's well understood that incidence of suicide and attempted suicide increases around this time, and the survey bears that out, with five percent considering suicide and fully twenty-two percent among those suffering mental health problems.

And, in one of the most damning statistics arising from the study, fifty-eight percent of those suffering with mental health felt they had nobody to confide in, with thirteen percent unaware of how to access professional help over the holiday period.

As I was gathering my thoughts for this piece, I had a bit of a rant on twitter. I'll come back to that in moment, but some of the responses I received, both in the open and by private message, highlighted some groups that especially feel the pinch of loneliness at this time, and I want to talk about them. 

There are several reasons why one might be ostracised by friends and family, but there are two really common ones that really impact those figures above. The first is people coming out as LGBTQ. 

Although I'm CIS in just about every way, I have two gay members of my immediate family and, as a young man, I worked in Manchester's world-famous gay centre. I remember that this time of the year was particularly difficult for many, especially those in their first few years, as they spent their first Christmases away from their families. Incidence of suicide and attempted suicide was high in this group at the best of times, but it ramped up during the holiday season. The gay centre provided a place of community, as well as support for young gay, lesbian and trans people, including an advice line for those in need of it. This experience taught me the value of having somebody to talk to during the difficult times.

The other group, although a group I identify as a member of, was considerably less affected, largely because I'm lucky to live in a nation that, despite being nominally Christian, is and has been for decades a de facto secular nation, and also because my immediate family is socio-politically aware.  I know that the UK is, along with much of Western Europe, fairly open to atheism and secular principles, but that's not true of all of the world. In other places, notably the US, which is ironically a nominally secular but de facto Christian nation, in which for much of the country coming out as an atheist is met with the kind of response you'd expect when somebody admits to being a serial killer. In places like the US, spending your first Christmas as an atheist can be particularly difficult.

Now, I'm a big ugly bugger perfectly capable of holding my own yet, every year, I'm still met with incredulity when I say I don't celebrate Christmas. I get called miserable, a party-pooper and, of course, the ever present epithet of 'humbug'.

Those who know me well will tell you freely that I'm far from being a humourless man, and indeed many will say that I'm a bit of a tit most of the time, but this really does wear thin, so I can only guess at the impact it has on somebody who's really struggling to cope.

So, that's that, and this is this, and this is the bit where I tell you all what the problem is that I really have with Christmas, and it's this:

I fundamentally object to the notion that we should set aside a time to be nice to each other. I realise that this is a radical notion, and it will not be well accepted by many, but there it is. In my opinion, the simple fact that this time is set aside for 'hope and good cheer' speaks to the fundamental sickness at the heart of our species. I know that there are people out there who are kind, graceful, loving, and deeply concerned about the failure of hope in humanity. I know them, many of them. I know that there are white people deeply concerned with the way that people of colour are systemically abused by society, that there are straight people advocating and championing the rights of the LGBTQ community, that there are humans out there fighting tooth and nail for humans, but the despair and the rot are still there and, in some places, growing bolder if not growing.

We're living at a crossroads, ladies and germs. We're on the cusp of a history long-forgotten and, if we're not careful, soon-to-be remembered. We need to protect the most vulnerable in our global society, and especially at this time when many of them feel at their most vulnerable.

So here it is. If you feel alone, unloved, vulnerable, suicidal at this time, I'm here for you. I know I'm not alone.

I know you don't know me. I know that I'm no replacement for the family that have disowned you. I know that there can be no replacement.

What I also know is that it's perfectly possible to choose your family. To move on and put the bullshit and the toxicity behind you, at least to the extent that you can feel loved. You ARE loved. Never forget that.

I'll finish up by providing a link to some useful sources of advice. The first is the link to the suicide prevention page of Stop Homophobia, a brilliant resource for all sorts of advice not just geared to LGBTQ people. 

Know this: There are some really fucking stupid people in the world. What really stupid people are most stupid about are things that frighten them, which in turn mostly stem from idiotic taboos handed down to society by religions.

That said, it's really important to remember that, despite your horrible experiences, we're still emotionally-driven, and that means that most humans can be swayed. 

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that you're not alone. There are people that love you not just because they aren't afraid of otherness, but because they're filled with and made of love. You are loved, even by people who don't understand you, because there really are people who aren't afraid of what they don't understand.

Don't feel that the world hates you, or that you're alone, or that you have no family. You're not alone, we love you whoever and whatever you are (unless you're a bigoted twat, in which case we want to educate you), and we are your family.

We are all the same species, and we are equal.

Oh, and Christmas should be banned.

Thanks for reading.

Edited to add:

*My fantasy time-machine scenario is going back in time and preventing this own-goal on humanity.

There's mounting evidence that what's been accepted by scholars for many decades doesn't stack up. One historian, Richard Carrier, has concluded that the evidence for Jesus' existence is less than awful. My own position is that it's shaky, and I can think of one argument against it, but Dr Carrier has directed me to an argument that he suggests defeats this. I haven't had leisure to check it out, and previous discussion with my friend historian Tim O'Neill has taught me to be circumspect in this arena, not least because it falls outside the areas I tend to spend my time investigating. Ultimately, the jury is out, and this is an issue that I don't think likely to be resolved in any categorical sense any time soon.

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