Sunday 27 November 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Imagine a world in 2D. Picture an Earth in which everything is monochromatic and where objects that are usually inanimate constantly move towards us - eternal static beings - and not the other way around. Think of a situation in which randomness is the rule: we breathe every now and then and not in regular intervals, there's not such thing as patterns and shapes lack geometrical sense.

In the same way a world like the one described above is impossible to envision, so is the annual Christmas charade utterly predictable. And every year it seems to arrive earlier. Back in August I saw a display of mince pies on a shop window.

It is more than fourteen years since I first came across the yuletide season. To me it felt as if all my life I'd been travelling through a desert only to find myself all of a sudden in the middle of a never-ending oasis. In the post-Castro Christianityphobic Cuba of my childhood the only (clandestine) celebration around the 25th December was our very own "Nochebuena", Christmas Eve. This was for most Cubans, a very family affair with the usual accoutrements: a hog roast with rice'n'peas, fried plantains, yucca and salad. Occasionally as the clock struck twelve and the 24th of December morphed into the 25th someone (in my house, it was my late grandmother) would produce an image of Jesus Christ, kiss it and say a prayer. But that's as far as we dared to go.

Over here it's the other way around. There's no way to escape the tinsel and baubles as soon as we move the clocks back and November arrives. My first exposure to Crimbo was Oxford Street's dazzling Christmas lights display. They're usually switched on by a celebrity, a singer, perhaps, who will probably perform a couple of songs after the official opening ceremony's over. After all these years I still remember the overhead beaming arch formed by the lights and decorations, and the way they seemed to invite me to lock arms with passersby whilst singing "Al ánimo, al ánimo, la fuente se rompió...", a game I used to play as a child.

Christmas then became for me, a Johnny-come-lately in London all those years ago, less about its religious significance and more about time off to be enjoyed and spent with my newly-created family. To my surprise I found out that I was not alone.

We know that we don't inhabit a 2D world and that in order to live we need to breathe at regular intervals. Likewise, we're fully aware that if ever a bearded geezer came down our chimney in the middle of the night holding a sack and saying "Ho ho ho!" we ought to get on the blower straight away and call the police. So, why does Christmas still hold us in thrall? My response is that it's got more to do with our psyche and less with the actual holiday.

As products of an ongoing evolutionary process, we, humans, have developed a whole range of conflicting emotions and unpredictable behaviour. We work long hours for weeks or months on end, but then try to get rid of our stress over a weekend. We destroy ourselves little by little through various vices, unconsciously most of the time, but then come up with perfect excuses as to why our course of action is right. In short, we lie to ourselves to make us feel better. Christmas, from that point of view, is a big lie.

Not a Big Lie, as in capital "B" and "L", but rather self-deception in a small scale. The perception we have of reality from the moment we're born is as accurate as our senses allow us to have, unless there's some kind of pathology involved. This means that in order to navigate through the outside world, we use the information we absorb. However, when it comes to responding to different stimuli, we make conscious decisions based on our prejudices and prejudgements. I have employed these two last terms in the most neutral way possible. For instance, we might be prone to boosting our self-esteem through a variety of actions: working or studying hard, raising our children in a particular way or challenging ourselves physically. If we were to come across someone who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum in regards to these activities, we might make a mental note of his/her traits as shortcomings.

This phenomenon is not new and neither is it consequence-free. We (that's the journalistic "we", by the way, as in most of us, not every single person on the planet) practice self-deception at some point in our lives because it makes us feel good. The downside is that it also makes us vulnerable to predators, i.e., industries whose main remit is to tap into and exploit those half-truths we tell to ourselves. Marketing is the first example that comes to mind. And marketing within the Christmas period is ideal cannon fodder to ramble on about the negative effects self-deception has on us.

At present there's an ad on telly in the UK that has stood out from the word go for its mix of simplicity, innocence and sweetness. If you reside on these isles, by now you're probably aware that I'm referring to the "Please, please, please" John Lewis commercial. This just-under-two-minutes clip is about a boy who can't wait for the morning of the 25th December to roll in. So far, so predictable. He counts down the days, the hours, the minutes, the seconds. Until the big day arrives and he gets up, whizzes past his own presents, rummages in his wardrobe, produces a red box with a nicely done ribbon, runs down the corridor to his parents' room, wakes them up and with a beautiful smile on his face holds out his Christmas present to his folks. The tagline? "For gifts you can't wait to give".

The advert works. A few commentators have already written about welling up by the end of it. It's been lauded by marketing specialists and its soundtrack has been singled out as a masterstroke by John Lewis, since it is a cover version of The Smiths' "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want". Not that Messrs Morrissey and Marr will be complaining too much about selling out when they check the balance in their bank accounts at the end of the month. Above all, the ad taps into our self-deception.

Amidst the greed displayed by the members of parliament involved in the expenses scandal and the recklessness of the bankers, the message of a boy wanting to give a present to his parents resonates with many of us, eternal optimists who think a better world is possible. Coupled with a soundtrack (performed by sweet-voiced Slow Moving Millie) that will remind people of a certain age of their rebellious youth will be an addendum. Throw in the mix the Occupy protest movement at St Paul's Cathedral with their socio-economic, political reform agenda and you couldn't have a more perfect backdrop.

And yet, it is self-deception, although of a higher quality. We don't know what the boy is carrying in the box. It could be a voucher for Alton Towers for which his parents will have to fork out half the money because you know, it's an adult half price and the other one full whack and as usual, terms and conditions apply. All right, all right, the box is big. Maybe it's a small voucher wrapped in old copies of The Daily Telegraph. But if that's the case, it's hardly a selfless act. We're also aware that the ad, The Smiths' blessing notwithstanding, is by and about John Lewis, a retailer which, despite the best of intentions, is only interested in the Kerching! sound at the till. To me the key element, though, is the word "give". It's the clincher at the end of the short clip. The child can't wait to give. Whilst the other chains can't wait to take your money and insist that you shop until you drop, John Lewis wants you to give... them money so that you can bring happiness to other people.

If "give" is the key element in the ad, money is the ghost in the room. We feel its presence and yet we're too spooked to mention it. We're led to think that he only reason why the child is doing that countdown till Crimbo is because he can't wait to open up his presents. Which probably left his mum and dad remortgaging their house. Money is the euphemism we daren't address. Self-deception is built on a "creative" and liberal use of our everyday language and that vocabulary includes dosh, too. We like to "indulge", to have some "me" time, to "chill out". But when asked to discuss how much these pleasures cost, we beat around the bush. In the UK, I've noticed a funny relationship between people and questions around money. A lot of us don't like talking about our earnings, our expenses or our lifestyle. However, "Money makes the world go around/The world go around/The world go around/Money makes the world go around/It makes the world go 'round" as Liza Minnelly and Joel Gray both averred in Cabaret. Maybe our reluctance to discuss the choppy seas of finances is more to do with the reputation money has, therefore self-delusion is the more appealing solution. We want to be as far away as possible from the message Pink Floyd gives in its eponymous song: "Money, get away, you get a good job with good pay and you're okay/Money, it's a gas, grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

For a lot of people, I think, it's hard to admit that Christmas is less to do with the birth of the most important figure in Christianity and more to do with feeling good about spending an enormous amount of money on presents, both on other people and on themselves. That's why sales from Boxing Day to New Year's Day always bring out the crowds. And by then Christmas is over. We're fully conscious that this attitude takes the sheen off the season of goodwill and brackets us as money-minded creatures or penny-pinchers, in the case of sales. Hence, a healthy dose of self-deception. Which is, come to think of it, akin to thinking that the world is monochromatic and bi-dimensional.

© 2011

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 30th November at 11:59pm( GMT)


  1. And a Merry Christmas to you too! You caught our angst beautifully here, the horror of the season and our self-indulgent need to want to create fantasies for those we love.
    Yes, you pulled the curtain and revealed the great Oz, the charlatanry of our commercialism.

    You make my Sundays, young man!

  2. What an amazing and interesting post -- AGAIN -- Cuban! I found each part provocative and resonant with my own feelings about the holiday. It was especially interesting to read of your Christmases in Cuba, their simplicity --

    And the Edith Piaf? Oh, my.

  3. Cubano, you are so right. The material always seems to overtake what should be a spiritual holiday. I like your Cuban celebration, it focuses on what is really important. Chicago's O' Hare airport has just announced direct flights to Cuba for the first time in my lifetime. I feel that I will see Cuba very soon.

  4. Christmas does get over commercialized. In the States the buying frenzy starts the day after Thanksgiving. This year the sales started a day early the night before, cutting into Thanksgiving dinners. My family gives gifts to just the kids and practical gifts like a rice cooker to the grandparents. I exchange books and music with some other relatives. Love Edith!

    Question: are you only having problems signing into my blog to post comments? No one else seems to have any problems or else they haven’t told me so thanks for telling me. Also did the problems come since I changed the commenting to the end of the post as opposed to a different page?

  5. Thanks a lot for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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