Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Tradition

So one of the painful realisations of growing up is that the shine tends to go off Christmas as you get older. Maybe it's because you have more money and in this cynical modern age we're deadened to the excitement of a bunch of new stuff. Maybe it's because Christmas is For The Kids and once you're not a kid you have to maintain the same illusion of Christmas cheer that was being put on for your benefit a few years ago. Maybe, like a lot of things, it has scarcity value: after a while you get jaded.

I talked to a friend recently about Christmas. I celebrate a big family all-the-trimmings, he does not. He is a Christian, I am not. I want to say before this goes any further that this friend is not the joyless, Christmas-hating stereotype: he is a warm, funny, deeply tolerant person who would prefer to spend the holiday doing good works than eating too much and getting presents. I don't want to defend the way I live my life by being snide about his. But at the same time I value Christmas because it gives me a chance to visit the family I see three times a year. It gives my parents a chance to buy things for their wayward eldest daughter -their only child not at home- so I have a working hair dryer, a new coat, boots without holes in and other little extravagances I can't afford on a student budget so they know I'm warm and dry and supplied with interesting books while I'm off in the big city. I like buying them presents too because it shows that I've taken time to stop and think about them. It's not just about presents though: for the last two weeks I've been able to think of nothing except seeing my dog again and she doesn't give me anything except slobbery kisses. Christmas is the time when I go home, rejoin my family, watch bad movies under a blanket with my brother and sister, peel vegetables on Christmas morning. They are golden. I will only ever get so many. Assuming I'm not unemployed or in further study next year my future Christmases might only be overnight visits, if that. As the length of time I can stay a student dwindles these family holidays become more and more precious.

Thinking about Christmas this year I realised that the things that get me most excited about it are my own personal traditions. Not big things, usually not very expensive things, just little weird personal things I do every year as the days draw in.

Every year I curl up with Terry Pratchett's Hogfather and spend a few evenings catching up with Mr Teatime, Susan Sto Helit and the anthropomorphic personification of Death. I'm not sure how many years I've been doing this, maybe as long as I've been at university. Maybe I started it in the winter of my first year, feeling cut off from family life and needing to reinforce my roots. Maybe. Maybe it just happened. Traditions are all about inventing your own mythology.

Maybe this year I'll buy the DVD adaptation, watched years ago but never actually bought. Or not: the adaptation is perfectly cast, beautifully designed and a faithful but succinct retelling of the book. It understands the knife edge Sir Terry walks between poignancy, whimsy and terror and doesn't try and dumb anything down or shoehorn characters into stereotypical roles.

But it's not the book. I'm not going to compound the cliche of a Christmas traditions post by making statements like "reading is more personal than watching" except, that films tend to be a social, shared experience, prone to having family members come in and loudly exclaim "what are you watching?", "is that a skeleton?" and best of all "what's Del Boy doing in Middle Earth?" I can't snuggle down under the blankets late at night to watch the DVD. I can't curl up in a chair and disappear into it. I can't sprawl on the floor in front of the fire, the dog's head* on my knee, breathing in the smell of wood smoke, hot metal, warm dog and the vanilla smell of old, well thumbed books. Well I guess I could, but it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be Christmas. 

As well as a reading tradition I also have a writing tradition. Years ago, before I'd grown the thick skin necessary to share my writing in the real world, I used to write online. First fanfiction, then parodies of bad fanfiction and then back to fanfiction again, until I went to university, had to read my work aloud in front of people and promptly lost any sense of bashfulness. But before I decided to concentrate on my own stuff I'd already taken part in the Yuletide Treasure annual rare fandoms fanfic exchange. The way it works is you give them a few suggestions n what you'd like to receive, offer a few fandoms you'd be willing to write in and everyone gets something custom written for them to open on Christmas morning. The first year I did it someone wrote me a three scene prequel to Midsummer Night's Dream. In iambic pentametre. For a stranger. I don't think I've ever been more touched by a present in my life.

I go to bed on Christmas Eve wondering about what someone's written for me and whether a different someone will like what I've written for them. My mum's cry of 'put the laptop away and talk to people' is almost a Christmas tradition in and of itself. And I do. But Yuletide Treasure is such a geeky, open armed, warm hearted tradition that it doesn't feel like Christmas day until I've checked it. When was the last time you worked on something for weeks just to make a stranger smile?

There's an argument (not a bad one, a Christmas one) between my brother and sister about how to decorate the tree. My sister favours an arty, minimal composition of one tasteful base colour and a selection of bird ornaments, whereas my brother prefers the traditional just-throw-everything-at-it-and-hope-it-stays-on look. I change from year to year but this time I think I'm on my brother's side. Last year I found some little knitted woolen angels I used to buy at Brownies Christmas events back in the day and I can honestly that they are the only good thing that came out of me going there. Anyway they were pretty grubby and about to be thrown out but I cleaned them up and they turned out good as new. They're pretty badass, to the extent that a knitted woolen angel can be badass, and the thing I look forwards to seeing on the tree every year.

What are your traditions? What are you celebrating this winter? Will you be taking part in Yuletide Treasure? Let me know in the comments.




*This image is tinged with sadness because when I started reading the Hogfather it was a different dog I was curled up with.

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