Is our ideal Christmas the one that never happened? That moment when all the aspirations and half-thought images materialised in some ideal that can never be put into words; that moment when childhood dreams mingle with story and legend and art to create a sense of something special, something so light and delicate and transitory, that trying to grasp it causes it to disappear?
Is the ideal always somewhere else? If it became a concrete reality would it still be be the ideal? If it took on the dimensions of the everyday, the ordinary, would it lose its magic? Would an ideal Christmas be like Tom Stoppard’s unicorn? Stoppard’s character Guildenstern reflects on the tendency to bring the ideal down to the common place:
A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until – “My God,” says the second man, “I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn.” At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are, the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience… “Look, look” recites the crowd. “A horse with an arrow in its forehead! It must have been mistaken for a deer.”
Stoppard’s unicorn suggests that not only has the ideal never happened, but that it never will, for as soon as we think that the moment is the fulfilment of our hopes, sharing it with others means it is lost. Perhaps Stoppard’s unicorn explains why Christmas never quite becomes the moment imagined, how can the ordinary stuff of human life quite fulfil the imaginings that began in the years of childhood?
But should the unreality of Christmas aspirations mean the ideal should be lost? Isn’t most of life about hope and anticipation? Hasn’t it been said that life is 10% about what happens and 90% about our attitudes?
“This holy tide of Christmas all others doth efface”, says the words of the old Christmas carol, expressing that ideal of a special time, no matter how prosaic its reality.