Advent Firesiders

Symbols (2007)

The thing that makes cultures rich is their capacity to absorb and hybridise elements from other cultures. The culture that lacks porosity becomes sterile and self referential. That is why, for all its manifest faults, Western cosmopolitan culture is endlessly varied and often surprising.

Look at Christmas which began its Western life with Cyril of Alexandria who thought that it would be a good idea to remember the birth of Jesus. As the custom spread it absorbed all kinds of pagan mid Winter festivals in Northern Europe. We got a crib with an ox and ass which emerged from nowhere (well, maybe Isaiah) and we picked up holly and mistletoe, the first coming to represent the unending Passion of Jesus, the second the transient passion of flirts. Then came the tree, the symbol of continuing life in Winter, onto which we came to load a wide variety of objects, some sacred, some jolly, an opportunity for self expression; you know a person by the Christmas tree decorations they keep, the somewhat gaudy and satiny packages from French hypermarkets, the vaguely ethnic, poorly carved pieces from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and the real thing from the Bethlehem Co-operative; or just a box of Woolworths best.

Then there is the snow man (largely of nostalgic yesteryear) and other accoutrements from the frozen wastes of the North such the reindeer and the sleighs which, naturally, lead us to the daddy of all Christmas symbols: no, not Joseph with Mary and his (or the Holy Ghost's) baby, but Father Christmas. He is a relatively modern fellow dating back to the late 19th Century and, you have guessed it, a product of North American free market capitalism. He has been such an enormous success that his recognition rate among children far surpasses that of the baby. He is also unashamedly kitsch and anti denominational; people who are not Christians might naturally shy away from cribs and Christmas cards with stained glass windows but they can't really object to this jolly fellow who doesn't have a Christian bone in his portly body.

When you stand all these figures together in an array, throwing in a few shepherds and kings and a cast of minor characters with strangely shaped drinking mugs and hunting horns with a goodly scattering of robins, sheep and, yes, wombats (because Christmas is global) it is difficult to see a pattern for the rather simple reason that there isn't one. Our porous culture has constantly brought in new elements but because we are conservative in our festivities we haven't thrown anything out. Thank goodness for that because if we were to subject our symbols to the type of expulsion voting on reality television, Jesus would be the first out; but that's precisely why he came.