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Jingle bells at the Cash Register

A lighter look at Christmas and all the trimmings

Written by Dilip Bobb | New Delhi |
December 25, 2013 5:54:17 am

There was a Christmas Carol recorded by Tom Lehrer,the American singer-songwriter,which went like this:

Christmas time is here by golly:disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly,fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkeys,ducks and chickens,mix the punch,drag out the Dickens.

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Even though the prospect sickens—brother,here we go again.

Lehrer was also a satirist and this ditty literally took the stuffing out of Christmas celebrations and the commercial cornucopia it has become. Take Delhi,where Christmas came early this year. In Khan Market,on the first day of December,the sidewalk had a row of Santas,playing saxophones and swaying to Hark the Herald from a hidden audio device. They were artificial of course,but life-sized and eye-catching,and expensive. Inside,the shop,there were more commercial salutations to the iconography of Christmas,all with price tags. They are made in China,the world’s biggest communist country,which makes millions of dollars from a Christian festival,and their capitalist fare ranges from trees to decorations,fairy lights and reindeer,mangers with baby Jesus,Joseph and Mary,and Santa Claus in all shapes and sizes.

It’s amazing how secular Christmas has become in India,where it is celebrated with as much zeal as in Indiana. Hindus,Muslims,Parsis,and Sikhs,everybody gets into the spirit of Christmas,thanks to the subliminal urging of the marketplace and the gaily decorated malls with their carols,trees,lights and decorations. Everywhere there is an invitation to spend,on presents for children and relatives,on Christmas cards,on parties,on wine and food,and it just so happens that New Year is around the corner,so the celebratory extension is natural,if hard on the pocket. Charles Dickens had it right. His novella,A Christmas Carol,was about a miser,Ebenezer Scrooge,and his transformation to generous donor,now symbolic of the urge to splurge that festivals seem to inspire.

Christmas is also a fascinating miscellany of traditions: one that combines pre-Christian pagan rituals with modern traditions. Every family that celebrates Christmas has its own customs — some universal,others unique — but all comfortably familiar. For most people,Christmas is about presents. Children can’t wait for Christmas morning. Christmas’s gift-giving tradition has its roots in the Three Kings’ offerings to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Today,Christmas is a bona fide gift-giving orgy. Stores bring out the tinsel and lights,bakeries are packed as are Christmas dinners at restaurants,all part of a feeding frenzy that festivals have become,thanks to a nudge and wink from commercial interests. Christmas traditions have a way of feeling timeless — you may have seen the same ornaments,sung the same songs and eaten the same foods for your whole life,but like inflation and taxes,they endure.

To paraphrase a popular carol: “Angels we have heard on high,tell us to go out and buy.” Last week,I got a mail from my bank telling me that “Christmas comes but once a year. Make the most of it.” The offer was for a loan to buy a new car. There’s no telling where the “Christmas spirit” can lead to. For one,it gets you out of the house,even if only to check out the decorations and follow that irresistible smell of fresh baked cookies. Then,whether you are in a mall,a store,a hotel,restaurant or the multiplex,you will be bombarded by Bing Crosby and hark the herald angels singing wherever you go. In the face of that onslaught,and the artful decorations,it’s a grueling test of anyone’s nerve to avoid reaching for your wallet. Yet,for all the commerce,here’s the thing. The bit about ‘the spirit of Christmas’ may be a cliché,but it works. Every year,like Scrooge,I mutter “Bah! humbug”,at the crassness,but come the day,and you can hand me a glass of that spirit and lead me to the mistletoe,where I can pretend that an angel awaits.

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