Many unhappy returns: Frank McNally on Christmas as a ‘feast of failure’

Deck the halls with broken friendships, lost loves and all the other ghosts of the past

In what is otherwise a blackly comic novel about the relationship between conventional morality and the real thing, Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt has a scene in which the Godless narrator attends a Christmas Eve religious service and thinks: “Christmas, it seems to me, is a necessary festival: we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships; it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”

Henry Pulling may have had a point. Christmas is indeed a feast of failure. After all, even by its Christian rationale, it is God’s plan B: an attempt to rescue the disastrous experiment that is humanity via the present of His son, so that at least some of us might yet be saved.

But the secular celebration is also dogged by failure, if only because of the belief that it should be – and once was, somewhere, in our childhoods or elsewhere – perfect.

As depicted on many cards and calendars, the ideal Christmas seems to have happened in Victorian England, circa 1870, when rich people were benevolent, the poor somehow happy and, crucially, there had been snow the night before, or at least a hard frost.


By contrast, even the weather of the season is now always a disappointment: wet or mild in these parts and welcomed only by bookmakers who have yet again persuaded a few fools to back the chances of a single snowflake falling at Dublin Airport in the 24 hours after midnight on Christmas Eve.

Speaking of which, the service Henry Pulling attends is at 11.30pm, “so as to distinguish it from the Roman Catholic Midnight Mass”. Yet even Catholic masses tend not to be at midnight any more, another example of remembered Christmases seeming better or more authentic.

The pressures to create the idealised Christmas Day continue, meanwhile, and all but foredoom us to failure. Women – it’s still mostly women – slave to produce perfect dinners, although they know that even eaten turkey and ham is soon forgotten (while, paradoxically, the food their dead mothers cooked is not).

And there is unspoken competition everywhere. Some of your neighbours will always have better window decorations than you, for example, and as displayed through open curtains, their beautifully lit trees will be a glimpse of the superior lives they seem to lead too.

This also goes for entire Dublin suburbs, I’ve noticed. The higher standard of living there may not bother you usually, but when you’re passing through at this time of year, their standard of Christmas makes you feel suddenly inadequate.

But parents everywhere are under pressure to ensure their children’s Christmases are as magical as the ones they seem to remember having themselves. This although the illusions they work hard to create must inevitably end in disillusion sooner or later.

A much-loved child of mine who shall remain nameless confided a while ago that, on a Christmas Eve when he was still – just about – defying scepticism on the arrival of a certain mythical international philanthropist, he heard his father cough somewhere, instead of reindeer bells.

Stab me in the heart why don’t you, I thought (although I loved his honesty too). And maybe even children feel the pressure of the season sometimes.

I recall a couple of my own late-childhood Christmases, after the dawn of reason, when there was still a compunction to play along. It was partly the fear that not doing so might undermine the whole toy-giving racket. But at some level also, there was the need to preserve the magic for my parents a while longer.

It is true, as Graham Greene suggests, that in forcing us to confront our failures, this season also allows us wallow in them. Hence the strange fact that many of the happiest Christmas songs are execrable to people of good taste, while some of the greatest combine uplifting music with lyrical misery.

In a church in Nenagh two weeks ago, I saw a packed funeral congregation sing along to Fairytale of New York with a fervour Catholics rarely reach on hymns about the coming of the Saviour.

In similar vein another Christmas classic, by Greg Lake, combines a scintillating instrumental from Prokofiev – evocative of sleighs dashing across snow-covered landscapes – with lyrics about the loss of innocence and the grimly fatalistic conclusion: “They said there’d be snow this Christmas/They said there’d be peace on earth/Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell/The Christmas we get we deserve.”

That would be a harsh judgment on the innocents of Gaza this week, not to mention the countless individuals around the world who face unhappy Christmases for reasons beyond their control. But this is a time for self-judgment, above all, when the failings we may have ignored for the rest of the year must finally be faced.

We won’t be any wiser on St Stephen’s Day. Even so, tradition decrees that as well as hanging up tinsel and holly this week, we must also deck the halls with memories of failed friendships, broken marriages, lost loves, things we should have said to our parents before it was too late, and all the other ghosts of Christmas past.