Humbug

BMJ (Published 22 December 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1466

I love Christmas. I love the carols, the companionship, the coldness, the friends coming home, the hot whiskeys and iced beers, the innocence, the magic, in the distance the horns of elfland faintly blowing

But I love it too much. Like the smell of coffee or the prospect of making love to a beautiful woman, it can never live up to expectations, and you always need a smoke afterwards, maybe a cup of coffee.

Instead of my beautiful fantasy, what we have is a tawdry commercial extravaganza, trinkets in the shops from October on, PA systems in shopping centres relentlessly churning out “Merry Xmas Everybody,’ or “Santa gets a hernia.”

It’s all bollocks. All those little Nativity scenes on Christmas cards, Mary surprisingly fashionable in a deep blue gown, a rather elderly Joseph seemingly resigned if a bit depressed, the lighting soft and cosy as if there is a neat little campfire somewhere, the straw as inviting as a feather bed, the immaculately groomed animals looking benignly on.

But have any of you ever been unlucky enough to be in a stable on a cold December night? My Uncle Paid kept a few cows, mostly just to annoy me I reckon, so I have tasted of that particular bitter cup. A stable in winter is as uncomfortable as it is possible to be; cold, damp, dirty, mucky, there is a stink of sweaty animals and cow dung, the straw is both wet and itchy at the same time, and if you could light a fire, even with the straw being soggy the place would go up in flames before you could say “J. … C…, put that match out,” and the whole Nativity family would have been torched instantly and history taken a different course.

Even the giving and receiving of presents is flawed. All actions are ultimately self referential, observed Spinoza, and he wasn’t far wrong. We like to think that Christmas gifts from our patients are a symbol of generosity and gratitude, a sign that our relationship is not purely cold and professional, that the care we give to them comes from our hearts. But I have a salutary little parable.

Last Christmas an art student whom I’d been counselling for like a billion years brought me one of his paintings, in appreciation of all my help. I was very touched and thanked him sincerely; and then, in the true spirit of Christmas, he said, “I can get you a good deal on a frame.”

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