This article was originally published in 'Noel' Magazine, 2016
There was a family we used to know, who unfortunately carried an annual Christmas ritual too far. They were originally from the rural areas of their country: a business executive and his talented, home-making wife, partners of greatness on an upward social trajectory. When I was young I took them at their word, at face value, not knowing much about sociology or class distinction or any of those realities of which we are all now acutely aware.
They were attractive, charismatic and ambitious. He was on his way to becoming a CEO, and she was hostessing wonderful dinner parties and keeping the perfect home beautifully, and involving herself in art appreciation classes and creative decoration. All was well, between us, for many years. Until the Christmas Letters started coming. I recently discovered them all in a bundle, while clearing out boxes of papers from the garage a couple of months ago, and marvelled at the social documentary, the slice of life, they provided.
At some point in the 1980s and 90s, this family started to seriously climb the social ladder in the society of the City in which they had finally settled. There was a photograph inserted into one of the letters which showed them with their teenage children, smiling in their garden, having drawn large circles in chalk inside which they stood, embracing each other. 'We are moving in only the best circles!' was the caption, handwritten on the back of the photograph.
Perhaps the concept of Christmas Letters was culturally specific to that country, so kindly bear with me while I explain. When people start extending themselves socially, and their contact list grows, it becomes very difficult for them to write to everyone individually, to 'keep in touch' at Christmas time, with Season's Greetings and festive wishes and so forth. Time is money, so their real relationships fade, and business relationships of the 'win-win' variety take their place. There is no time to meet up during the week or the year, so their relating takes the form of an exchange of curriculum vitae: a sort of festival of interfacing resumes.
The business world emphasises the effective use of time and effort, so to avoid the tedium of writing the same information over and over again, this family started to summarise their activities over the year into a Christmas Letter: itemising the best experiences they had had throughout the year that had just passed. This transformed into a 'Best Of' list of overseas trips, events and cultural activities which showcased their own blossoming forays and awakenings. Best Films Seen. Best Books Read. Best Restaurant Meals Eaten.
The items omitted from this summary I have, over the years, come to see as the real substance of a person's life: the failures, the fears, the internal journeying required by the occurrence of tragedy, of unenvisaged loss, of unexpected betrayal. The kind of event that Premium life or Platinum health insurance cannot generally cover.
The CEO took up golf, (of course); they joined their local Country Club, and started fine dining, during which they developed their palates to enjoy and speak with familiarity about European cuisine. Walking tours of Tuscany and the great gardens of England, France and Italy followed. Tracing their development year by year, via the annual family roundup, it became clear that they had become shameless braggarts. Updating their acquaintances in detail, annually, about how progressive and productive they were being throughout that year. Celebratory self-congratulation.
Twenty years before the onset of selfies and the celebrity-style promotion of surfaces and sheen inherent in modern urban living, this family were pioneers in self-portraiture. Creating a sort of family brand.
The tremendous self-approval that all this revealed was remarkable to those outside the corporate world. But in the circles in which they now moved, the inhabitants went to gyms with names like 'The Winning Edge', and attended professional development courses with titles like 'The Unfair Advantage', to help them re-calibrate themselves and deal with the spiralling stress levels they were experiencing. They had, along the way, inevitably started to value everything in life according to a financial estimate of investment and expected return. 'Look out for Number One' was actual advice they gave others, with absolutely no sense of irony.
This was my first vision of the compulsive competitiveness and posturing and positioning apparently required to 'count for something' and 'make your mark' in the 'best circles'. Year after year, the Christmas Letters came, with the bullet points of humble bragging making their indelible impact on their recipients.
We gave the family the benefit of the doubt for as long as we could, but eventually the generic and impersonal nature of the relationships they preferred started to grate on our sense of what real relationships were about. Christmas to me was a time for virtue signifying: helping out at the soup kitchen for the homeless, without telling anyone about my participation except the organisers, hearing the wonderful old songs sung by charity choirs, and baking shortbread and mulling wine for two, and re-reading Christmas stories like 'The Little Match Girl' and 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'.
The vast smorgasbords and all you can eat buffets left me cold, in the air-conditioned palaces of luxury hotels. The 'proud display of life' was a phrase from the Bible that came vividly to me when I re-read those Christmas Letters, in their entirety, with the benefit of retrospection. Sometimes, people allow themselves to become saturated by this kind of pride.
Please understand! I love Christmas hampers, filled with good things. But I find as the years pass that the commercialism of the values which are now pre-ordered and gift-wrapped and presented to us as 'traditional' are not ones which appeal to me at all. A few years ago, we gently intimated to this family that we would like to NOT be included in the vast mail-out of their annual Christmas Letters.
We loved them as people, we greatly admired their many escalating achievements, but they were no longer the people we used to know. The way they had commodified the sacred holiday and turned it into an opportunity for self-promotion was alienating. And they were not alone, in this. The whole world turns into a noisy festival of join-the-dots emotion, plastic sentimentality, and push button euphoria, an annual orgy of conspicuous consumption, resulting in a kind of global, community-induced coma.
Summing up, I reject the flurry of emojis currently available to us, to try to express what the ceasing of these Christmas Letters means to me. The genuine compassion I feel today, for that family whose festive epistles we at last unsubscribed from, is my own version of the true Christmas spirit.