Eat, drink, be merry
A counter to the killjoys' guide to Christmas.
Guess who’s plastering posters around the UK this Christmas with the words ‘I wish the baby Jesus had never been born’ on them? A Satanic group dreading another celebration of the Christ child’s birth? Radical atheists who want to open our eyes to the futility of religion?
In fact it’s The Samaritans, Britain’s trendy ‘listening charity’, which is keen to flag up just how ‘excruciating’ the season of goodwill can be. The cheery charity says the anti-baby Jesus slogan is ‘an attempt to illustrate the dread with which some people view the festive period’ (1), when ‘increased expectations of “high spirits” among family or friends can lead to a deflating sense of anti-climax if they fail to materialise’ (2).
Talking up holiday horrors has become an annual institution for The Samaritans. Last year they claimed that ‘financial worries will affect almost one in four this Christmas…[and] one in five people find the pressure to have a good time makes Christmas difficult’ (3). This year they’ve stuck all the stats together and come up with: ‘60 percent of us find aspects of Christmas…depressing.’ (4) So much for the season to be jolly.
The Samaritans aren’t alone. Charities, cops, government bodies, men of the cloth and economists are falling over themselves to warn us of the financial, familial, emotional, stressful, criminal and diet-related disasters that make up the holidays. From disease-spreading office parties to wife-beating on Boxing Day, from getting robbed on the high street to falling out with your family, Christmas seems to have become one long holiday from hell. Or as a happy-clapper vicar puts it: ‘Over the Christmas period, more people attempt suicide, more families break up, there are more arguments, and people can’t stand it….’ (5)
What ever happened to goodwill, good cheer and having a good time? To carefree celebrations with family (sometimes a burden) and friends (often a laugh)? Forget it. Now we have a not-so-festive season that is apparently a straining, stressful and depressing time that can push even the most rational adult over the edge of too much turkey, booze and selection boxes. So let us give praise that there are more than three wise men to help us through the yuletide psychological traumas.
The scares started early this year, with warnings about Christmas office parties. If you thought the obligatory work party was nothing more than a boring/embarrassing/remotely fun affair, think again. According to the experts, the annual piss-up can make you sick, destroy your career, or even end in sexual violation – and not the good kind.
‘Knees-up can spell career mess-up’ warned a BBC headline on 3 December 2002 (6), as a survey of 1225 working adults found that many had done something career-threateningly embarrassing at a work do – from ‘dancing inappropriately’ to ‘being rude to the boss’ to ‘flashing a part of their anatomy’. ‘If the results of the survey were applied to the population as a whole, 2.3million people would have done something embarrassing at past bashes’, pointed out BBC News helpfully, with one expert claiming that all this bad behaviour can ‘ruin careers’ (7).
If you don’t leave the office party clutching your P45 you might leave clutching your snout. ‘Christmas parties trigger colds’ said a headline on 13 December 2002 (8), with GPs claiming that the spread of coughs, colds and misery around the UK could be down to ‘so many Christmas parties’ and all that ‘close contact’. ‘You have parties and people are close to each other, so you’re more likely to catch the virus’, says one medical expert (9). It’s coming to something when Christmas parties are seen as more likely to spread disease than goodwill.
Apparently there’s another, more serious reason to avoid close contact at the office do – the possibility of being raped. ‘PARTY PREDATORS’ screamed a headline in the UK Mirror in mid-December 2002, complete with a picture of the ‘date rape drug’ Rohypnol, as London’s Metropolitan Police launched a TV ad campaign ‘warning women of the danger of date rapists spiking their drinks at office Christmas parties’ (10). The Met’s Detective Chief Inspector Richard Walton had this Christmas message for the nation:
‘The office party is a very dangerous environment and women must be on their guard. You are much more likely to be raped by a work colleague at this time of year than by anybody else. We are sure this Christmas party season will produce a big rise in rapes where drink or food has been spiked. The message to women is…don’t put your glass down and if someone offers to buy you a drink, keep an eye on what they are doing.’ (11)
The office party a ‘very dangerous environment’? Where anyone who offers you a drink should be treated with suspicion? Next they’ll be telling us that hanging up mistletoe at work dos is little more than an excuse for predatory men to infect naive women with a nasty virus while ruining their careers in time for Christmas.
And how many date rape cases in the UK have been linked to Rohypnol, whose ominous picture has accompanied most of the Christmas scare stories? Er, none. The police claim that ‘67 different drugs have been linked to date rape’, ‘19 have definitely been used in British cases’, but ‘Rohypnol has yet to be confirmed in a woman’s bloodstream in the UK’ (12).
Women’s woes don’t end with the office party. The Tories, of all people, are using the festive season to flag up the ‘Christmas holiday’s hidden problem’ – domestic violence. Tory activists are distributing 10,000 posters around the country with the words ‘Another Boxing Day’ running across an image of a woman cowering beneath a clenched fist. ‘Christmas is a particularly difficult time in some families’, says the Tory spokeswoman for women, and apparently ‘such problems get worse at Christmas when levels of stress, alcohol and debt increase, and domestic violence reaches a peak’ (13).
The Tories’ newfound interest in battered women reflects the idea that home life is especially traumatic over the festive season. If wives aren’t being beaten by their husbands, then marriages are falling apart (‘Divorce rates rocket during festive season’, says one headline), teenagers are committing suicide (‘the number of suicides increases immediately after New Year’, say The Samaritans), or parents are being stressed out by their kids (‘Pester power drains parents’, says one report).
No doubt tensions do boil over in some homes over Christmas (especially in those inhabited by ‘real people’ with ‘financial problems’, as the caring and sharing Tories describes them). But since when did Christmas become the Season For Flagging Up Every Problem Afflicting Humanity? Instead of being seen as a chance to relax, give thanks and rejuvenate, Christmas has become the focal point for politicians’, the media’s and charities’ fears about our mental and physical health. Bah humbug indeed.
If you want to escape the dangers lurking in the office and the traumas waiting for you at home, you can always partake in a bit of shopping therapy. Except that…‘As Christmas nears, the shoppers will be out in force and with them the fraudsters’, reports the UK Guardian. ‘That friendly tap on the shoulder as you’re at the cash machine may not be all it seems’, the Guardian reports. ‘With Christmas approaching, police are warning people to be extra-careful with their credit and debit cards because fraudsters are out in force.’ (14)
Apparently, shopping at Christmas is a minefield of con artists, pickpockets, stressed-out shopaholics, and potential terrorists. ‘Bin Laden to target Christmas shoppers’, said the front page of the Daily Express on 19 December 2002, warning that ‘terror attacks could be unleashed on Britain this Christmas by al-Qaeda fanatics already in the country’. And if the terrorists or fraudsters don’t get you, your own neurosis might. The Mental Health Foundation warns that a ‘crowd of frantic shoppers’ can ‘push up your stress levels’, so maybe it’s best to ‘avoid the shops altogether by using mail order or the internet’ (15). Except that…
‘Buy online but watch for crime’ is the advice from the UK government. At the end of November, New Labour advised us to shop via the web ‘to avoid crowded high streets’, but warned that fraud can take place on- as well as offline (16). According to a headline in the Observer on 22 December 2002, ‘Cyber theft will net millions as Christmas shoppers go online’. Apparently, ‘gangs of fraudsters [will] cash in on the internet sales boom’. Who knew Christmas shopping was such a stress-inducing, crime-risking, terrorist-attacking activity?
At least we don’t have to worry about being burgled in the immediate run-up to Christmas. ‘Even for Britain’s criminal fraternity, Christmas is a time for rest and recuperation, as burglars take time off on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day’, says a reassuring BBC News. Except that… ‘In the week leading up to Christmas burglars go on a crime spree’ (17). They giveth – then they taketh away.
So work is dangerous, home is traumatic and shopping is deadly – but at least there are still the small but perfectly formed pleasures of Christmas, like watching children’s faces light up when they receive their gifts from Santa. Except in Maidenhead, Berkshire, that is, where a congregation of parents and kids was told by the Reverend Lee Rayfield that ‘Santa Claus is dead’ (18). The reverend explained that Santa ‘defies science’ and that ‘reindeer would burst into flames if they had to travel at the speeds necessary’. But when some Church of England vicars have given up believing in God, we can hardly expect them to believe in Santa.
According to other reports, behind the childish smiles that greet Santa’s toys there often lurks a broken family. ‘British parents spoil their kids, particularly at Christmas time’, says one report. ‘Many parents, under pressure from their offspring, are willing to break the bank in order to keep their children in fashionable clothes…. One in five adults surveyed admitted to not paying bills in order to meet their kids’ demands [and] more than a quarter claimed that they even went without a haircut in order to pamper their children.’ (19)
But maybe parents see such sacrifices as worth making in order to make their children happy and fulfilled over the holiday season? In our scroogey times, it looks like some people find such notions as odd as reindeer travelling at the speed of light.
If you have older children in their post-Santa years, there are other worries. ‘New wave of sophisticated alcopops fuels teenage binge drinking’ warned a headline on 14 December 2002, telling parents that ‘teenagers are gripped by an “epidemic”’ of boozing. Apparently, the bingeing is ‘so severe that it has seen consumption almost double in the past decade, health experts warned as the nation begins its Christmas celebrations in earnest’ (20).
That is typical – health experts issuing such dour warnings just ‘as the nation begins its Christmas celebrations’. Teenagers have always got drunk during the Christmas, New Year and any other period, whether it was on cider, cheap lager or the new ‘sophisticated alcopops’. Apparently it isn’t only the teens that can’t be trusted with the bottle over the festive season. Thames Valley Police warn that ‘appeals for people not to drink and drive over Christmas are being ignored’, and Liverpool City Council is planning to ‘flood [Liverpool] city centre with rickshaws’ over Christmas, in an ‘effort to combat drink-driving’. Why not flood the city with taxis instead? And when are we going to have a Christmas holiday free from lectures about drinking and driving?
Surely, amid all the horror, terror and trauma that makes up the modern Christmas, one part of the festive season remains sacred – the eating of food? Not quite. Some campaigns are flagging up the dangers of overeating (‘Obesity levels set to soar’ says one headline), while other campaigns are talking up the dangers of under-eating. ‘Bulimia reaches an all-time high over Christmas’, says the UK Eating Disorders Centre, ‘with people throwing up all the time and some resorting to cutting themselves’ (21).
So don’t go to office parties in case you get sick, sacked or raped. Don’t get drunk in case you end up in a car crash or in a rickshaw. Don’t overeat, but don’t under-eat either. Don’t visit family members for fear of stirring up tensions, but don’t stay at home in case your husband batters you. Don’t buy the kids too much in case you spoil them, don’t buy them too little in case you give them an inferiority complex – and remember that Santa and science don’t mix.
But aside from all that, Merry Christmas one and all.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
Nativity scrooges, by Ray Crowley
(1) Charity’s poster ‘could backfire’, BBC News, 17 December 2002
(2) Samaritans and the festive season, The Samaritans, 17 December 2002
(3) ‘Season of peace and goodwill? Britain doesn’t think so’, The Samaritans, 19 November 2001
(4) Samaritans and the festive season, The Samaritans, 17 December 2002
(5) Clergyman calls for Christmas ban, BBC News, 22 November 2001
(6) Knees up can spell career mess up, BBC News, 3 December 2002
(7) Knees up can spell career mess up, BBC News, 3 December 2002
(8) Christmas parties trigger colds, BBC News, 13 December 2002
(9) Christmas parties trigger colds, BBC News, 13 December 2002
(10) Party predators, Jeff Edwards, 12 December 2002
(11) Party predators, Jeff Edwards, 12 December 2002
(12) Party predators, Jeff Edwards, 12 December 2002
(13) Tory spotlight on domestic violence, BBC News, 27 November 2002
(14) Beat the cheats, Rupert Jones and Judith Larner, Guardian, 23 November 2002
(15) ‘Top tips to lift your spirits this Christmas’, Mental Health Foundation, November 2002
(16) Buy online but watch for crime, shoppers told, Sarah Left, Guardian, 26 November 2002
(17) Burglars take Christmas off, BBC News, 18 December 2002
(18) Vicar tells children Santa is dead, BBC News, 10 December 2002
(19) Britons ‘spoil their kids’, BBC News, 22 November 2002
(20) New wave of ‘sophisticated’ alcopops fuels teenage binge drinking, Sarah Hall, Guardian, 14 December 2002
(21) When fat is a festive phobia, Jo Carpenter, Observer, 16 December 2001
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