The Fellowship of Life
To one's heated imagination, it seems to come round more quickly than ever, as if time had telescoped or the calender contracted. Christmas we mean. Why, we still have the scar tissue from the last thrash and here we are on the threshold of another spending splurge. ("A tradesman's orgy," blistered Bernard Shaw.)
Personally, the giving and getting bit isn't a great worry - if folk wish to exchange musical cigarette boxes and fibre optic lighting sets that's their business...with quote marks round the "business". But when it comes to the grunt and guzzle, that's another matter. The idea, nurtured by all those food commercials, is that we are incapable of celebration without a fork and knife in each hand. Accent on the knife - because for many the feast involves the slaughter of the living - the burnt offering most favoured around now being the turkey. A large share of the responsibility for perpetuating this quainterie must lie at the door of Charles Dickens. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge atones by rushing out to buy Bob Cratchit's family a prize turkey from the corner poulterer. So fat (the turkey) that Dickens notes, "He never could have stood upon his legs that bird". Which anticipates by over a century the genetically deformed bird-creatures that wind up in the rigor mortis of the deep freeze, as naked as the Babe whose birthday they are killed to commemorate.
GBS had a word for it
It needed someone like Shaw, to blast away the shrouds of sentiment. "To my unspeakable horror and loathing, they triumphantly brought me up a turkey with sausages. 'Surely, Sir,' they said, as if remonstrating with me for some exhibition of depravity, surely you can eat meat on Christmas Day?' 'I tell you,' I screamed, 'that I never eat meat.'... Yet they came up again, as fresh as paint, with a discoloured mess of suet scorched in flaming brandy; and when I conveyed to them, as considerately as I could, that I thought the distinction between suet and meat, burnt brandy and spirits, too fine to be worth insisting on, they evidently regarded me as hardly reasonable." GBS, you should be living at this hour.
In some countries, they stagger out of midnight mass straight into the dining room to fall upon roast pig, stuffed goose, or whatever happens to be the speciality of the house. And don't we seize on the secular - for the child-loving Italians, the crib has enormous appeal. Thus you may see a whole manger scene carved out of butter (together with a vast display of hams and tins). There's a feudal custom at Queen's College, Oxford, in which a boar's head, glazed and garnished with bay, rosemary and holly, is carried into the hall and laid before the provost with an orange stuffed in its mouth (the boar's). Accompanying this piece of medieval flummery is a choir singing carols. "God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay." The gentlemen have much to be dismayed about did they but stop to consider. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (by courtesy of Chas. Dickens) can point a spectral finger to the millions who may know the frosting of famine before the year is out.
The days of gormandising and gluttony are out. Christmas can no longer be the steamy, moist-eyed, bloated, pot-bellied affair that it was.
It might be as well to remind ourselves that December 26 is St. Stephen's Day, which commemorates the patron of animals. Now more than any other tired turn of the centuries, he might have something to say. Legend has it that the raven was the first to know that the Birth had taken place - "Christus natus est" - and throughout the Holy Night, the cocks crow through the starlit hours. And the lowly animals turn to the East and kneel.
Perhaps we should join them there.
With thanks to the Vegetarian Society: www.vegsoc.org
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