Monday, December 11, 2006
Christmas. Some love it, some hate it, some are indifferent. In fiction, Christmas is as likely to bring trouble as it is tidings of good will. The Christmas dinner scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations, for instance, is a masterful evocation of the terrors of a childhood spent surrounded by monstrous adults. This is in contrast to the cheery feast that concludes the same authors’ A Christmas Carol.
Some stories prefer to show both sides of the coin at once. I have an abiding memory of a film I saw as a boy, a western called Will Penny that I watched on the television somewhere back in the 1970s but haven’t seen since. The hero, a poorly educated cowboy, finds a moment of peace in the home of the film’s love interest, a young widow with small children. It’s Christmas time, and the family try to teach the cowboy to sing Tannenbaum (“Oh Christmas Tree” in German). But this wintry idyll is shattered when the villains, some lairy old-timer and his psycho-gang, come bursting into the cabin, upending the tree, firing their six-shooters in the air and bellowing “Merry Christmas” in a mocking tone of voice. If memory serves me right, this leads eventually to Will Penny crawling over snowy ground wearing just his cowboy issue long-johns, though quite why that happens, or how he survives, I no longer remember. Then there’s a scene in a film called The Sure Thing in which a youthful John Cussack (I think – again, it’s a while since I saw this film) attempts to sing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas with a fuddled old drunk he’s just met in a motel bar, both of them trawling the lyrics up in broken fragments and piecing the song together as they go. This scene is there to show that Cussack’s character has a sentimental heart beating away beneath his cynical frat-boy jersey.
There are many possible meanings within the sublimely complex medieval tale Gawain and the Green Knight, by an unknown author. The story is set around Christmas and New Year over two adjacent years and combines the pagan and the Christian interpretations of the December festival, alongside related seasonal meditations, in a story filled with vexed questions of morality, honour and humanity. Gawain’s Christmas must certainly have been spoiled by the prospect of submitting to the Green Knight’s beheading axe come New Year. I can only hope that none who read this, whether pro-Christmas, anti-Christmas or utterly indifferent to the whole thing, will have anything of the sort hanging over them, at this or, indeed, any other time of year.
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