As a child growing up in the 1970s, I enjoyed many Christmases when the Christmas song was at its peak. Slade, Mud, Wizzard, Boney M…the list goes on. All since having entered into British cultural folklore.
One song that my family never liked – possibly because it was unlike most other Christmas songs – was Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”. Because of this, I took on my family’s dislike of the song, growing up believing that in some way it wasn’t a proper Christmas song, whatever that might mean. Despite this, I clung onto this view for many years.
Having been a parent myself for twenty years, I’ve continued the tradition of listening to Christmas songs. This has taken places in various guises but has featured heavily in the kitchen and the car. Sadly, I normally start this tradition at the start of November meaning that by mid-November everyone’s sick and tired of them. And with each new technological advance, so the format of the listening experience changes: C90, CD and nowadays, iPod and Amazon Cloud. Today, alongside the old classics I’ve established The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl, The Darkness (sorry), Mariah Carey (sorry x2) and in the past year, Emmy the Great (no apologies).
But in the 1970s, Greg Lake’s song now features heavily.
This is not something that has occurred by accident. Each passing year, I critique the songs I include in the Christmas playlist in an attempt to ensure that quality is maintained and that only the best songs are included. As part of this, East 17 and Elton John have both fallen to the wayside over the years, whilst Cliff’s “Saviour’s Day” never even made it !!!
It was this process that saw Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” find a way back onto the playlist. Having listened to the lyrics with an adult’s ear, I was surprised that I hadn’t liked it before. Whilst my mum – who I recently asked – disliked the song because she felt it was ‘anti-Christmas’, for me it was the complete opposite: it captured the modern Christmas experience perfectly.
In the song, Lake describes how, as a child, Christmas was a magical time, shrouded in mystical stories of wonderment about the virgin birth and about Father Christmas. But as he goes on, at a Christmas some time later, he realises that Father Christmas is made up and with that, the wonder of Christmas disappears, leaving him cynical and disappointed.
For me, this is so true. As a society, we blur the edges between the overtly fantastical (Father Christmas) with the overtly theological (the virgin birth). I myself have been to school plays where the ‘naughty sunbeam’ is looking for the Christmas star over Bethlehem whilst only a few minutes later, Father Christmas is appearing alongside the three kings and various shepherds. What lessons do young children take from this: are they able to differentiate between fairy story and Christmas story in any meaningful way? I very much doubt it. Is the Christmas story anything more than myth itself? I’ll leave that for you to decide for yourself.
Irrespective of your own perspective, is it any surprise that when the myth of Father Christmas dissipates, so too the virgin birth, the nativity, the angels and Jesus?
Of course not. But it does conveniently allow for the void previously filled by wonderment to be promptly filled by the materialistic excesses of the new X-Box, iPhone,Playstation, iPad or Blu-Ray player.
Lake ends the song with the lines:
“I wish you a hopeful Christmas, I wish you a brave new year,
All anguish pain and sadness, leave your heart and let your heart be clear,
They said they’ll be snow at Christmas, they said there’d be peace on earth,
Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell.
The Christmas you get you deserve”
As the year’s pass, so Lake’s words ring louder and louder in my ears. Walking around any shopping mall I am struck by the tragedy of so many people around me wanting to ‘buy’ a ‘proper’ or ‘perfect’ Christmas. But surely they’re missing the point. No matter how much they spend, they’ll never get the Christmas they want. ‘Buying’ a Christmas won’t re-create the lost sense of wonderment many experience. Neither will getting into severe debt to buy unwanted and unnecessary gifts nor even gorging yourself on too much food will help either. Despite this, every year more and more people will search in desperation for something ‘proper’ or ‘perfect’.
Sadly, they’ll never find it because you cannot buy wonder, you cannot buy mystery, you cannot buy – in the words of Greg Lake – “eyes full of tinsel and fire”. Because of this – and again the words of Lake come in useful – the vast majority will always get the Christmas they deserve…
(This article is a re-working of a post I wrote back in 2008)
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