In a land of excesses and enthusiasm, of Macy’s and Hollywood, we expected Christmas to be something of a big deal.
We can hardly expect to celebrate with our usual joie de vivre, pulling crackers over a wobbly napkin-strewn table waiting for plates filled with myriad festive stodge, hot and cold, while our family plays the tradition games of ‘who can have the loudest conversation’.
Alas, we are stuck away from home and cannot partake. I am disappointment incarnate.
As a child, Christmas has a very tangible quality – the crinkly stockings stuffed with chocolate money, small toys and a tangerine. Waking up to the smell of the Christmas tree, heightened by the central heating and windows closed against the cold. Crisply wrapped presents to be opened and enjoyed, only to be ignored and forgotten the very next day. The only day of the year with no TV.
As an adult it becomes more awkward. It becomes more about meeting family. Relatives you haven’t seen since the last Christmas have somehow grown more distant. You have less in common, and talk is trapped down to roads and weather. And roads. And weather. You spend the day in with a vague sense of deja vu, as every conversation becomes a repeat from the year before.
But the English do Christmas. We just do. It’s like sprouts – it may not be any good, but we’re damn well going to celebrate it. It feels special.
The build-up starts in October – as we have no Thanksgiving, and Halloween is little distraction. George Michael mourns his last Christmas (you think he’d learn) from every pine-laden storefront. Oxford Street is inaccessible to all but the bravest buyer from mid-November. The weather gets colder – a lot colder – and the nights draw in. Sunset is at around 3pm, and it feels properly dark, all the time.
It’s not a religious thing. Christmas is a national event, not a religious one. It has two public holidays: Christmas Day and Boxing Day. We celebrate with Father Christmas, trees, gifts, mistletoe, snow, reindeer, holly, and food. Nothing religious, nor offensive, there.
So here we are in San Francisco, and you could argue that it’s the same. The shops have enormous wreathes on the front, and equally gigantic trees. We saw workers spend three days building the tree in Union Square. Building? Yes, building. They start with a normal tree, and the screw in extra branches to fill out the gaps and make it rounded. Shocked? It was like finding out there’s no Santa. But apart from shattering one 32-year-old’s illusions of trees, there’s no harm done. It looks good.
So there’s trees, and Santa, and elves, reindeer and all the rest. How is it different?
I’m not sure. There’s something missing.
“Happy Holidays” seems so disingenuous to me, an Englishman (or “Brit”, as they would have me). But that’s ok – it rarely gets mentioned. I remember that last Christmas I walked through St Pancras station, and they’d employed someone to spend all day dressed in Dickensian garb, to bow grandly and wish everyone in the station a very Merry Christmas. It felt real.
This just feels like a day off. Nobody has wished me a Merry Christmas here. We need that guy.
Tomorrow, Christmas Day, we’ll be headed to Safeway. It’ll be open, and so will Starbucks.
We’ll get our coffees, then go for a walk along the beach. In the sunshine.
We hope your Christmas is a bit more Christmassy.
From eight hours behind, and five thousand miles away, Merry Christmas to everyone!