'I fear we are a stupid people' (Thomas Carlyle).
If asked (which I haven't been) to characterise our age, I think I'd say it was The Age of Hypocrisy. Every age has its besetting sin, and ours (I think) is hypocrisy. Shame it's not lust or gluttony - that'd be more interesting. In fact, we're always being told by the Puritans of the world that lust and gluttony are our main sins - all those pictures of binge drinkers on the t.v. news suggest as much. But these images are themselves mere symptoms of a deeper sin: hypocrisy. After all, are we to believe that all the politicians and media whores who preach at us about binge drinking go home at weekends to read Middlemarch and drink Horlicks? No, they've more than likely been drinking and coke-ing it before, after and during the very news broadcast on which they tell us not to.
Shameless hypocrisy is ubiquitous in the modern age: the guy who declared war on Iraq is now Peace Envoy to the Middle East; the same government that talks about 'respect' invades other countries willy-nilly; alcohol companies produce adverts promoting 'drinking sensibly' (I mean, come off it); people who weren't good at being parents themselves run parenting classes; health and safety pretends to be about health and safety rather than 'please don't sue us'; people preach to us about carbon emissions whilst building more airports; top charity workers earn per week fifty times more than one of the people they're meant to help will do in a lifetime; ecologists drive and fly around telling everyone else not to drive and fly around; everyone seems to be preaching to everyone else about what they weren't good at in the first place.
And, of course, one of the most surreal forms of hypocrisy by which we are currently best is Christmas. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas: it's everywhere at the moment, and has been since October. Every shop window pretends to wish us a merry Christmas, every advert promises us a snowy heaven. For a start, let's be honest for a moment: snowy heavens don't happen any more. It's all a lie.
But it's a lie in a much more worrying sense: these days, Christmas is over before it's begun. Christmas starts in October, and starts to grind to a halt sometime in mid-December. My mother went to some department store last year in mid-December to buy some Christmas decorations. "Oh no," she was told, "don't be silly. That's well over now. No, of course we won't be buying more in. The season's been and gone." Most shops, at the very least, start the sales in the week before Christmas, and take all the Christmas decorations down on Christmas Eve. So Christmas is a peculiarly Derridean enterprise, in that it really is over before it's begun. By Christmas day, all that's left is to hand out the presents people couldn't afford, and eat all the food no one can really manage. The 25th December doesn't really exist as such any longer, let alone the other days of Christmas. I think this is spiritually, morally and emotionally unhealthy, maybe disastrous, for people in this country: everyone looking forward to something that doesn't exist.
Back in the 1970s, when "I were a lad," people and shops and churches alike at least pretended that Christmas consisted of twelve days. We sang 'The Twelve Days of Christmas,' didn't put the decorations up till twelve days before Christmas, and the shops didn't even re-open till a few days after Christmas. The shops never took down their decorations prematurely. They never seemed quite so exploitative or voracious.
Obviously, this was a different kind of untruth, in that the shops back then were still only interested in Christmas insofar as it fattened their pockets. They were only pretending to be interested in Christmas; they were only pretending to take part in the Festive Season and the twelve days so they could make money in a different way to the Christmas-Eve-is-the-end-of-everything, boom-and-bust, take-it-and-run, end-of-the-world capitalism of today. They thought they might make money over the whole twelve days of Christmas, selling treats, cashing in on people's seasonal goodwill. So it was just a different form of hypocrisy, spread over a different time span.
But maybe some forms of hypocrisy are better than others. If we have to live in the Age of Hypocrisy, perhaps it'd be better for the shops at least to pretend that they care about Christmas itself, and the whole of the Season, rather than bare-faced exploitation, in which Christmas is blatantly a money-making enterprise, and the hypocrisy is just an open secret. Otherwise, we might just as well give up all the snow-ridden lies about Christmas - we might just as well abandon the whole idea of a Festive Season - and just have a 'Financial Transactions Season,' in which we hand over lots of our cash to the shops in return for rubbish, which self-destructs at midnight on the 24th December.
(Thomas Carlyle, not Father Christmas)