Confessions of a Festophile

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I am a self-confessed… 'Festophile'…

For those of you who missed the first bit and pondered dubiously on the “phile” - what I mean to say is that I exercise obsessive, compulsive and what would certainly be described as atypical behaviour when it comes to the festive season. The kind of person so full of whimsical nostalgia that I have been known to cry over the smell of tinsel, and whose google history, come September, is already inundated with searches for cinnamon and clove potpourri, John Lewis ad spoilers, and perhaps most basic of all…festive hummus recipes (chestnut is key for those of you wondering). Thoughts of Christmas become all consuming, so much so that despite all efforts to sustain polite conversation, I often catch my mind slipping off into the merry distance, conjuring up images of myself as Maria Carey rolling around in her playsuit in the snow, or musing over what might be in the window display at Harvey Nicks this year. So, for those of you who find the idea of Gregorian caroling in October tiring- best stay clear, as each year the anticipation of Christmas takes up almost my entire cerebral matter. However, more recently this feverish enthusiasm of mine has become a cause for concern…I’ll come to why a bit later on, but back to Christmas for now if you don't mind…

There is great comfort to be found in the knowledge that no matter the political curveballs or personal crises the previous year might have thrown one’s way, the sensory abundance of December marks an inescapable return to the old and familiar. Each year, soon after chocolate coins start to grace the check-out aisles the same battered boxes emerge from the depths of storage containing familiar tangles of fairy lights, baubles and a nativity set that’s definitely seen better days. Along with naff paper hats, sprouts and cranberry sauce these old friends take pride of place in our homes for the ensuing month, shining like the unsung darlings they are. While there is nothing inherently glamorous about stockings and tinsel, just like the clunky organ chords of Good King Wenceslas and George Michel’s lid in ‘Last Christmas’, in my mind the charm and comfort of the festive season flows from its cosy, uncool and crucially uncontroversial nature.

So, as you might have already guessed the beloved Christmas Tree takes center stage in this frilly Christmas fantasy of mine, and given the above ramblings, you can imagine my initial knee jerk response when faced with the notion of swapping out a traditional star or angel for a plastic Serena Williams or Beyoncé. I stared at the motivational Instagram post and pushed my phone away in quiet disbelief…..thoughts of my beloved wicker star sitting alone in its box rushed to the fore….. since when was there anything festive about a tennis skirt I thought miserably. The grump continued for several hours, and as I sat on the bus stewing over why we really had to “feminise” Christmas….it slowly dawned on me in real guilty feminist fashion that I was truly behaving like the Mike Pence of Christmas- feminism’s real-life Grinch.

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To set the record straight, despite my predilection for carols and Mark Darcy’s reindeer jumper there are many things I love as much as Christmas, and if there’s one thing at the top of the list it’s the sisterhood. Everything from the boot stomping ‘zig-a-zig-aa’ s of the Spice Girls to the sensitivity of Maya Angelou and introspective humour of Dunham- the spirit of powerful women, be it through unapologetic booty-shakes or significant calls to action, has in many ways formed the soundtrack to my life. So why then was it such an alien thought to showcase their significance at Christmas? The reality of how out of touch and contradictory my initial hesitation had been was becoming increasingly clear. For all its well-intentioned sentimentality and wisdom, the Christmas narrative has a lot missing. For starters…where the F**K are all the women?

Sure there’s Mary, but given that she has just been presented with the news that she's pregnant with The Son of God…despite being a virgin… she is absurdly accepting of her fate and readily hops on a donkey with her new bae no questions asked. Now for anyone that knows the foggiest thing about teenage girls, the occasional missed cycle and subsequent panic of an immaculate conception, would normally result in hysterical panic and frenzied symptom checking, followed by a group deliberation and collective hysteria. Consequently, one cannot ignore that for all her virtue and strength Mary is cripplingly unrepresentative of how a 15-year-old girl might actually behave given the circumstances. Indeed, by modern standards the turnout for baby J’s birth is something reminiscent of a giant frat party. Without trying to be too cynical, if you break it down it involves a free house, a reluctant host and a group of guys catching wind of ‘something going down’ and rocking up uninvited. But while the Kings and Shepherds crack on, the women (if any) are nowhere to be seen.

While I can easily forgive the Bible for all its anachronisms, when it comes to the representation of women, or lack thereof, it is the exclusion of Mrs. Claus that annoys me the most. In her scarce media cameos poor Mrs. Claus is usually depicted as a mute, buxom older woman, as cheerful as her husband and most often found baking cookies in the background, or tutting as Mr. Claus reaches for his seventh mince pie. Again, sugary sweet and old-fashioned as this is, given the responsibility and organisation required for their magnanimous stocking venture, it is far more likely that the first Lady of Lapland should best be understood as the quick-witted no nonsense filo-faxing queen probably running the entire bloody show. M & S did a great job reviving this lost lady in their 2016 Christmas advert in which they depicted Mrs. Claus as a self-governing lounge-wear loving middle-aged woman who, clad in a valiant red dress (from M & S naturally), takes to her snowmobile and red helicopter to deliver gifts herself.

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Now I am not suggesting Mrs. Claus ought to divorce her spotlight hogging husband, nor need we petition for gender neutral reindeer, but when empowerment and representation are buzzwords for a reason, perhaps my whining and pining for all things ‘conventional’ and ‘traditional’ isn’t so natural and unquestionable after all. In fact, much to my dismay it turns out that we have been subverting Christmas traditions for centuries. My most beloved of customs- the Christmas Tree wasn’t even traditionally displayed in one place but rather carried from house to house- and if that wasn't a scooter to the ankle I almost spat my tea out when I read they were originally hung upside down from the ceiling. Additionally, the glorified Turkey didn’t become the staple bird of choice until the 1950s, and despite its traditional role, is increasingly being replaced in favour of a nut roast as vegetarianism and veganism become more readily adopted. Just like old recipes or one’s own fashion sense, as social habits and preferences develop, the ‘traditional way’ is subject to an update from time to time, often for the better (crushed to death by a fir tree on Christmas day is a very shit way to go) and it is crucial to note that these updates needn't make them any less cosy or lovely.

At a time when the president of the US is a openly shamed pussy grabber and media moguls have had their trotters inexcusably close to the silk slips of Hollywood starlets, the need for an empowering female narrative that challenges patriarchal assumptions is more crucial than ever- and is indeed taking shape. With the “me too” hashtag and “this pussy grabs back” movement rallying men and women alike, the traditional characterisation of the female as an unassertive muse-like entity is slowly losing its appeal. I think I speak for many when I say that given the current state of things, the urge to dress up in sexy elf-costumes and drunkenly serenade along to Eartha Kitts requests for “Santa baby” to bring her rings and yachts just doesn't sit right this year. Rather than engage in the same unhelpful conversations such as why Kiera Knightley is so annoying in Love Actually or if Daniel Clever would ever go for Bridget Jones and her big pants, lets focus on the big stuff and work to improve the conversation surrounding the damaging characterisation of women in 2017.

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When you think about it when better than at Christmas, and what greater place to start than with the top of your tree? With canapés and booze in full flow- the presence of Bey, Serena or Hils provide the perfect opportunity to shift the conversation to greener pastures and explain (in my case slurringly over one too many glasses) why Grammy record-breaking, world championing and fearless trump-defiant women are so important not just personally but globally. Imagine the look of surprise on your uncle’s face when you calmly point out that Serena Williams is actually a more acclaimed tennis player than Roger Federer (winning one of her 23 Grand Slam titles while pregnant!). Or the inspiration that might flow from telling your aspiring diva cousin that Beyonce rapped the first verse of ‘Partition’ off the cuff without even writing it down. 

While a little glittery statue on top of a tree might appear a small gesture, it is symbolic of something much greater- the celebration of women whose accomplishments diversify and strengthen the female narrative and in doing so prove that the power of all women extends far beyond the kitchen, the big screen or the catwalk. I think we can all agree that as far as messages go this one is definitely worth spreading- even if it’s just to your hard of hearing sherry laden Grandfather over pudding…. who knows what he might get from it. And for the traditionalists out there still grappling with thoughts of your old star or angel being usurped by these glittery ladies- remember its Christmas not the Prohibition. Who says you can’t have your star AND your queen- because let’s face it, you only have to talk to the great ladies in your life to know they are one and the same thing.

 

 

 

Matilda Ruck