Bri­tain To­day

Die Briten tun an Wei­h­nachten Dinge, die sie den Rest des Jahres nicht tun. Vielle­icht soll­ten sie dieses Ver­hal­ten ein­mal über­denken.

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Colin Beaven on Christ­mas in the UK

At Christ­mas, the British go places they avoid dur­ing the rest of the year. They go to church, for ex­am­ple. Some­times it’s stand­ing room only when cathe­drals have a carol ser­vice, and mid­night Mass on Christ­mas Eve can be sur­pris­ingly busy any­where. What makes peo­ple want to go to church so late at night? I sus­pect it’s be­cause a lot of old Abba songs are played at noisy Christ­mas par­ties. Clearly, the words “Gimme, gimme, gimme a man af­ter mid­night” are mis­heard as “Gimme, gimme, gimme amen af­ter mid­night”. The­atres are also fuller than usual, be­cause fam­i­lies go to pan­tomimes. A Christ­mas panto is based on a fairy story such as Cinderella or Sleep­ing Beauty. Re­told as a fam­ily show, it has song, dance, colour­ful cos­tumes, spe­cial ef­fects, lots of cross-dress­ing and plenty of jokes.

Above all, though, it in­volves au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion. This mainly takes the form of an ar­gu­ment with one of the ac­tors. The for­mula is al­ways the same: if, say, the prince in Sleep­ing Beauty tells the au­di­ence that Princess Aurora is dead, the au­di­ence is quick to con­tra­dict, shout­ing, “Oh, no she isn’t!” But the prince doesn’t leave it at that. It’s now his turn to say, “Oh, yes she is!” This can go back and forth for some time. It’s repet­i­tive. The di­a­logue is more on the level of the school play­ground than a tragedy by Sopho­cles, but it is great en­ter­tain­ment.

It’s the verbs that make all the dif­fer­ence. If you left them out, you’d just be shout­ing “yes” and “no”. Where’s the fun in that? And it’s so im­por­tant to be able to dis­agree prop­erly. See­ing a panto once a year re­ally is the best kind of train­ing.

Why do we need to prac­tise dis­agree­ment and show that we’re scep­ti­cal? Be­cause it’s not just pan­tos that tell us fairy sto­ries. We’ll bracket out mid­night Mass, where in any case, au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion is prob­a­bly less wel­come. If you called out when the vicar said some­thing that seemed hard to be­lieve, I doubt whether any­one else would join in.

We do hear a lot of non­sense in ev­ery­day life, how­ever. There are ads on the telly for things that make us look young, slim and beau­ti­ful. When­ever you hear that a prod­uct is “clin­i­cally proven” to help you, it’s time to shout, “Oh, no it isn’t!”

There are also plenty of ex­trem­ist politi­cians who seem to think they’re Prince Charm­ing and that a sim­plis­tic idea is the an­swer to a com­plex prob­lem. All to­gether now: “Oh, no it isn’t!” Some pan­tomimes take place in­side a the­atre, oth­ers out­side it. If we tried to ex­port open dis­be­lief from the one to the other, it might help to shake us out of our usual stu­por.

It’s a waste of time try­ing to do that on Christ­mas Day, when we’ve had far too much to eat and drink and have sunk deep into our tra­di­tional Christ­mas mega stu­por. Or, as Abba called it in a song that be­came one of their big­gest hits: “Su­per stu­por...”

COLIN BEAVEN is a free­lance writer. He lives and works in Southamp­ton on the south coast of Eng­land.

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