Merry Christmas!

I was raised to the ideal of Christmas being a general sense of goodwill to all people. Christmas was meant to be merry, not a merry fuck you.

A season of generosity marked with presents and a general tolerance for the slightly drunken ramblings of family, and the rumblings of mountains of food getting demolished.

And it was good. Much like Diwali is good, or Tabish Svat is good, it was the sort of festival where you didn’t need to actually believe the foundational story to enjoy.

Then the cultural and religious/secular wars took off, and saying Merry Christmas is becoming a coded way of telling people to go fuck themselves. It seems that for many people, the phrase has come to represent an aggressive, mean-spirited version of Christian nationalism that asserts that it is defending a cultural value, while simultaneously raping it. I saw it first-hand yesterday, in a department store here in America where I’m spending the holidays, when a clerk wished a customer “Happy Holidays”. He responded with a belligerent “Merry Christmas” before launching into a tirade about people not wanting to acknowledge the birth of Christ.

It didn’t even occur to him that the clerk may not have been Christian or even religious, and that this was her compromise. Happy holidays, and various other formulae have been introduced as much for the sake of political correctness as for variety.

But I think more than one person would point out that the almost obligatory nature of Christmas is anything but – I mean, do we call someone a Grinch if they don’t particularly enjoy Eid? Do we have the three ghosts of past, present and future visiting grouchy old men who don’t like Passover in TV specials? Do we have major atheist comedians singing about how they really like Vesak, despite not buying into the Buddhist conception of enlightenment?

We massively favour Christmas, because at the heart of it all the meaning of it has morphed. For many, it is no longer so much about Christianity as it is a vision of a better humanity.

So say “Happy Holidays” if you will and I’ll happily accept it. But I can still say “Merry Christmas” with a smile, because for me there is no hidden agenda. I will not sully the greeting with the identity politics of politically incorrect copy pasting – which generally confuses xenophobic cowardice for courage.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers, with no obligation to repeat or agree with anything I say, because this is not the season for taking offence, but rather giving goodwill to all.

The art of receiving well

Christmas. My favourite and worst time of the year. I almost always end up tearing my hair out looking for the right gifts for people. But giving a gift is only half the exchange: receiving is equally important, and sometimes the very hardest part.

There is an art to receiving a gift, whatever form it may take — something tangible or simply an act of kindness or generosity. Emily Post, ancient doyenne of good manners, has dictated the etiquette: You will be gracious; you will be grateful; you will remember to say “thank you.”

But there is more to good receiving than rules. The art of receiving requires craft.

A good receiver not only expresses liking and gratitude, but can make the giver feel more thoughtful and good about themselves. Being a good receiver requires genuine caring — and sometimes, some acting ability. As you open a gift you must never let your expression stray from delighted surprise, or even hint, “Why the hell is she giving this to me?” or “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”

The real test for a receiver is getting a “bad” or unwanted gift. That’s when you must turn your attention to the giver. “You are so thoughtful.” (Obviously the giver had some thoughts about this item, if only you could figure out what they were.) Or, “How nice of you to think of me.” (It is always nice that others think of us.) If the gift is handmade you can always appreciate “the time you must have spent.” (Even “bad” gifts made by hand represent an investment of time.)

But etiquette and strategy cover only a part of receiving a gift well. What about the deeper difficulty in receiving — really allowing yourself to be given to?

The big test is whether you can accept a gift without feeling that you have to give one back. This is hard for many people. I have a few friends for whom this is like a badge of independence. You offer to take them to a concert or to pay for dinner and their first response is to reach for their wallets: “What do I owe you?” Grrrrrrr!

But I too have been guilty of this in the past, especially at this time of year. For a while I used to keep a spare set of Christmas cards handy, just in case I received one from someone I hadn’t thought of. But that could be equally ungracious.

What if you allowed the giver to simply give?

There’s something to be said for allowing another person to be the sole giver. You honour them by receiving their gift, rather than evening the score by handing back a pretty package of some generic item that is intended only to make you feel less guilty over their generosity. Sometimes the nicest thing we can give someone is to let them be the thoughtful one.

Receiving well is actually a kind of generosity. This year I’ve decided that, when required, I will allow myself to be given to, and give the gift of receiving well.

Sleeping with Bo

I was flipping through a magazine the other day, and came across a picture of 80’s actress and pinup Bo Derek. Oh man, what memories did that bring back! You see, Bo Derek was the first woman who ever told me she wanted to have sex with me. Honest!

She was in my room, hanging out on the wall, hair braided with beads, wearing a swimsuit with a plunging neckline that revealed three-quarters breast, which was just enough, perfect really. She had recently been frolicking on the beach, and she had just the right amount of sand sprinkled all over her, strategically placed for maximum impact. She did that for me. She did everything for me. She was perfection, and she was perfection consistently. Every time I came home from school, before dinner but after playing football with Andrew and Colly down the road, she would welcome me home with the same fierce gaze. She wasn’t happy to see me; she was starving to see me. She was always starving to see me.

Her desires were so powerful that sound could not contain them. She could only convey her hunger through a thought balloon sprouting from her ripe lips, in plain English that, fittingly, resembled my own handwriting. “I WANT you, David,” she said. “You are SO sexy!” Occasionally, with a little help from me and my scissors, she would say other things, like “I want to be your girlfriend” and “Let me sleep with you PLEASE.” But she was always just talking to me. And it was always her first, for a while it was her only.

She, Farah Fawcett, and Naomi Campbell, and other conquests had only recently made a habit of hanging out in my room. I hadn’t even noticed them until about a month earlier; it seemed strange they could float around undetected for so long. It was an accident they even showed up in the first place. I was flipping through an old copy of Sports Illustrated, when I turned the page to an advertisement for next week’s issue. And there they were. Different photos, all of them, but all with the same look, as if they had just been tapped on the shoulder in the middle of a deep thought and whipped their heads around to see what the fuss was about.

I hadn’t realised it, as I stared at them, mostly Bo, entirely Bo, actually, that I was feeling fidgety. I was tapping the bed, tapping my knee, tapping a lot of things really. It was difficult to nail down exactly why I was staring, and tapping, and fidgeting, but I was, I was doing them all, and I was doing them all with a precision of purpose that was unfamiliar, and a little frightening. What exactly was it? I tilted my head. Curious. Why would I not turn from this page? There’s a story about Pele on page 59, but still I am stuck here, mesmerised. I began to feel unsettled, and fidgeted even further. Look at her neck. Have I ever noticed a neck before? And the way her suit is slightly unspooled, like I caught her in the midst of something, changing maybe, with the strap hanging aimlessly across her shoulder and brushing her elbow, and her boobies, that’s what they are, why do they seem so monstrous all of a sudden? Is that some sort of deformity? It can’t be; they look so fresh, so full of life and flesh and muscle — is that muscle? —  and they’re just right there and they’re the only thing on the page and where am I really and wasn’t I just reading a magazine a minute ago and my God why am I fidgeting so violently?

And in a rush, in a split second, as if the world spread out before me, as if I had been carrying a large rock on my shoulders for years and years and someone mercifully relieved me of it, as if the earth had suddenly flattened out into a serene and bountiful marsh, as if I was sliding across it at blinding speed on my back, WHOOSH … I realised that something had changed, something had happened, and that it was very possible that what just occurred meant I was going to die.

It took a few moments, and I collected myself, and I realised that I was still alive, and feeling ashamed, yes, but good, good, good, quite good, yes. It was shortly after this point that Bo and her friends started making regular appearances in my room.

A week later, another old Sports Illustrated, and Bo was everywhere. I had to release her from her chains. All it required where a pair of scissors and some notebook paper. I locked the door to my room and went to work. Snip, snip, scratch, scratch, fidget, fidget, and hours later, I shut off the light and went to sleep.

I woke up next morning and Bo and her friends were there on the wall above my bed. They were all over it, like the formulas of a mad scientist, all carved out of their paper prisons and free to be with the boy they loved, who loved them. They were everywhere, every picture traced with scissors to precise, exacting dimensions, all with their own words, speaking only to me. My wall was covered with Bo and her friends, dressed for the occasion, always happy to see me, always hungry.

They stayed there for another month or so, and then I let them go, once I realised their presence was causing my parents to start talking to me about matters I had no interest in discussing. I tried putting them in a folder at first, but that seemed undignified, so dark it was, so I eventually just took them to school with me and buried them in the trash. I feared I would be discovered, but I was not, and then it was over, and I discovered new Bos, and then I met real, live, talking ones, and they were tougher to crack but better somehow, more complicated but more fun, more exciting. I never mentioned their presence to anyone, and, mercifully, my parents never mentioned them to me either.

It has been many long years since Bo and her cohorts began speaking to me, letting me know that they were waiting. Letting me know that I was not to forget them. I am still listening, Bo. It has never been the same since you showed up. I still haven’t turned the page; you’re still far more fascinating to me than Pele.