By Brendan O'Neill
BBC News Magazine
How did Christmas come to be seen as more of a hazard than a holiday, something to be survived rather than celebrated?
You used to know the festive season was on its way when fake snow started
appearing in shop windows and supermarkets blasted out Muzak versions of
"Rocking Around the Christmas Tree".
Now we know it's Christmas time when various experts come out of the
woodwork to issue warnings about the alleged perils "lurking behind the
This Yuletide we've been warned about everything from the turkey dinner
(can cause festive family feuds), to decorations (are a fire hazard and can
kill your pets), to pantomimes (can scare children witless).
What's with these killjoys? Is Christmas really so bad for us? I reckon we should be more relaxed. We a need new Christmas slogan: not so much "Good will to all men" as "All men, chill out!"
Earlier this month, scientists claimed the traditional Christmas lunch
- once seen as a rare opportunity for familial togetherness in our
otherwise hectic lives (and for stuffing ourselves senseless) - can cause
"bickering and belligerence" and even violence.
The overload of turkey, spuds, puddings and booze apparently leads to
"repeated changes in blood sugar levels", which can make us irritable and
"There are tremendous psychosocial pressures at Christmas", said Paul
Clayton of the Royal Society of Medicine. "And on top of that you have your
blood sugar levels all over the place, and that is not a good recipe for a
calm, relaxing day."
Need to be well cooked
The government-funded Food Standards Agency has even set up a web site
called "Eat Well, Be Well - Safer Christmas Eating" to advise us on how to
avoid being poisoned by our Yuletide nosh.
Apparently you should "always make sure turkey is properly cooked before
you serve it, because eating undercooked turkey (or other poultry) could
cause food poisoning".
How did our mothers and grandmothers ever manage to cater for the festive
knees-up without such sparkling insights from on high?
If the lunch doesn't get you, the decorations might. The Trades Unions Congress warns workplaces not to go overboard on
balloons, because "millions of people are allergic to latex".
An animal welfare charity has warned dog owners of "the perils that lie
within our favourite Christmas treats and decorations". Apparently,
mistletoe, tinsel, chocolate and even raisins "can all be potentially
harmful to dogs".
Mistletoe is bad for people too, it seems, as it can lead to "inappropriate
flirting" and unwanted advances at seasonal office parties. A legal firm has compiled a top 10 list of tips for surviving the office
bash (the "Top 10 Rules for Surviving the Yule").
It warns that "Mistletoe is dangerous": the pressure to kiss underneath it
can lead to complaints about a "sexual harassment culture" and provoke
hostilities between the sexes.
One American newspaper summed up this new view of decorations as
potentially deadly rather than cutesy when it warned readers that they are
a fire hazard.
"There is a dark side to the Yuletide decorating story: be careful where
and how you decorate or the festivities could end in tragedy...", the paper
It continued in this horror-movie voiceover vein by warning readers that
"there are other bogeymen lurking beneath the bright holiday
facade┐.remember that holiday candles pose a dramatic risk of their own".
Christmas cards are now more likely to be seen as spreading destruction
rather than joy. Apparently our penchant for posting cards to loved ones (between us, we
send about a billion a year) is damaging the environment.
At least the kids still enjoy Christmas, right? Not so fast. A government-funded education website caused a stink this month when it
offered patronising advice to parents about the perils of pantomimes and
"For very young children, Father Christmas can be terrifying," it warned.
"If you are planning a visit from Santa, you'll need to make sure that
fearful children are near an exit.┐"
The advice has since been removed following complaints from parents' groups.
Where's the exit?
How did Christmas go from being about "mistletoe and wine" to miserabilism
and whining, where what were once seen as simple, pleasant activities -
eating with family, tacking up tinsel, dressing like Santa - are now viewed
as potentially harmful?
I say "Bah, humbug!" to the Christmas killjoys. Christmas isn't bad for
you; it's good for you. Having a week or two off work can be relaxing and reinvigorating; seeing
family and friends is nice for most of us; and sending and receiving gifts
and cards can be uplifting rather than wasteful or destructive.
And what is wrong with pigging out on meat, spuds, selection boxes and even
a drop of the fizzy stuff for one day of the year? Indeed, Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, tells me that over-eating and drinking is part of the Christmas tradition.
"Christmas is above all a great Christian feast - and the very notion of
feasting implies a degree of excess", he says. "Catholic tradition in particular favours noisy rejoicing after the mild
fasting of Advent."
From the secular side, Matthew Fort, food writer and author of Rhubarb and
Black Pudding, challenges the idea that Christmas lunch leads to family
"If families bicker they are to blame, not their dinner! It can be good to sit down together as a family and eat decent food, so enjoy it."
And he points out that, for all the warnings about overdoing the booze on
Christmas day, a little bit of red wine can be good for you, according to
studies that found it can protect the heart.
"More than that it can be good for the mind and soul," he says. "If you do
have a family clash, nothing takes the edge off it like a glass of good red
Not the ideal Christmas dinner guest
Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, is disappointed that
Christmas seems to have acquired such negative connotations.
"The Scrooge factor is permanent in human nature and seasons like Christmas
always bring it out," he says. "But in many ways, excess is the point of Christmas. It's a big blast at
the coldest darkest part of the year.
"I just hope that people balance the excess of pleasure with an equivalent
excess of kindness and charity - and many people do."
Hear hear! So enjoy the decorations, the grub, the get-togethers and even
having a tipple or two - and eat, drink and be merry.