As Christmas colonises the consciousness of half the planet once more, saturating minds and all available public space with its clutter of commerce and compulsory, cloying, conditioned sentiment, it is always a relief to be in India. Admittedly, in recent years, the Indian taste for festivals of any denomination does seem to have led to an upsurge in violently vermilion-coloured knitted hats fringed with white nylon fluff, curious reindeer-antler headgear that sings in the dark, and a range of similarly devotional items. With the possible exception of a sudden rash last year of street traders hawking large leather whips on and around 25 December, at least the evidence is that this festival is not being treated with any undue respect or seriousness here.
I have now evaded nine Christmasses in this way, so it is possible that these observations are outdated or inapposite, but what filters through to me here in my splendid isolation suggests not. Christmas is perhaps the outstanding example of the way in which the social machinery operates to ensure that all its subjects are thoroughly ensnared in its mechanism, body, mind and soul. (If you are just now feeling frazzled by this mechanism, take a little time out to seek some centring and peace in the mandala galleries: Thoughts of a madman and other mandalas in the Mind gallery reflect this frazzling, but reveal also an underlying peace that is always there, and always available through some quiet relaxation with a mandala. The Nature gallery also offers some refreshing respite from the rush.)
So inexorably does the season advance upon the hapless inhabitants of ‘Christian’ countries, seeping out through every channel of media and publicity in a relentlessly rising tide of hysteria, that they have no chance at all to step aside. Their active participation is structurally implicit, wherever they work or shop or play.
Participation in what, exactly? A curious assemblage of disparate beliefs and desperate behaviours. Buried at the bottom of the whole show is the ancient recognition of a cosmic event, the winter solstice, which somehow became conflated with the supposed birth of a great religious teacher. Somewhere along the line, this event was linked to the night-time visit of a certain good man bearing gifts, who gradually acquired the use of a reindeer-driven flying sleigh, as well as a residence at the North Pole and a curious fondness for chimneys.
It seems it was with this innocent character that things began to get out of hand. Santa Claus’s kind-hearted sack of presents has gradually metamorphosed into a rather cold-hearted flood of commercialism, overwhelming every marketplace in ‘Christendom’ and intruding into the remotest reaches of consumer consciousness. And so comes the compulsory and compulsive purchasing and offering of frequently unnecessary and unwanted items, which will be left swilling around the world like so much expensive jetsam after the festivities have ebbed away. Along with this surfeit of objects comes an equal excess of food and drink, poured unnecessarily into the numbed and exhausted body, and an orgy of social contact that is often dictated more by form and custom than by any true, spontaneous feeling to connect.
Such concentrated and enforced consumption of objects, food and people reduces the individual to some sort of Christmas robot, operating on autopilot according to the program installed by society. Living life from the outside in, while, at the core of the whole spectacle, an emptiness silently lurks. The remembrance of that special birth no longer resonates, dulled as it is by the dead weight of formalised, dogmatised religion. Just words, for the vast majority. (Check out Birth of a new religion.) The cosmic event still happens, quietly, majestically. The Earth turns the great corner of its annual journey, but nobody even stops to think that the depth of the darkness is passed through once more, that the sun is on the return again. Life has been snatched from the jaws of oblivion one more time. Who has space left inside to feel awe at this, when so many old movies are running on TV and the drink is bringing ever greater forgetfulness? (See the mandalas in the Cosmo mandala gallery for a remembrance of some of the cosmic forces underpinning our lives at all times.)
Still, and even so, here’s wishing a very merry Christmas to all those for whom this celebration is a reality. After all, there is one aspect of Christmas that really truly makes me merry: all the decorations. It is a great delight to experience the annual transformation of the dour everyday Western cityscape into a wonderland of colour and pattern and sparkle. This at least gives some real feeling of celebration in Western/’Christian’ culture, where the gaudiness and glitz that India is so much less shy about enjoying whenever an excuse can be found, seem somehow frowned upon for the rest of the year.
And, for all those who are not yet sated with the festive aesthetic, may the gilded and glittering designs in The jewel box gallery take away any bitter taste in these words…