In many ways, modern society demands that we should be successes. We are supposed to be those who by our determination or personality make our own destiny and triumph over all that life throws at us so that we succeed and prosper.
The message is everywhere. In films, our heroes demonstrate invulnerable perfection and flawless ability.
They crash cars at speed, climb out of the wreckage, flick off a few fragments of dust from their suit, straighten their tie and stroll away. They are fluent in whatever language is needed, never fumble in their handling of technology, and are always cool and collected. They never mistype web addresses, dial the wrong phone number or forget where they put the car keys.
Advertisements hammer home the message at a more domestic level: Everywhere we see smiling families of happy people in designer clothes enjoying cars and holidays. We ought to be perfect, we need to be a winner, and only losers mess up.
The fantasy that we can play the game of life with total success peaks at Christmas.
Many of us receive those depressing Christmas letters from friends that read like some kind of Annual Review for shareholders in which achievements are played up, disappointments are minimized and disasters are conveniently omitted. We hear at length of the writers' successful half-marathon, the successes of their children at school, their newfound attainment of Thai cooking, the bliss of those two weeks in the Mediterranean, their delight in their new conservatory. On reading their achievements, we can only feel like life's underachievers.
More troubling still is what we might call the Fantasy Christmas. No doubt based on an original idea by Charles Dickens, it has been boosted by innumerable bad Christmas cards, decades of syrupy films and limitless amounts of advertising. Although we recognize it as a cliché, the Fantasy Christmas is something that many of us have come to believe in and even hope for. In Fantasy Christmas, there is a large room whose walls and bookshelves are festooned with Christmas cards and decorations.
At the back of the room a fire flickers. On one side is a real Christmas tree endowed with color-coordinating decorations and twinkling lights, while on the other stands a multicolored tower of presents. Through the window we can glimpse a gentle snowscape. In the middle of the room is a table piled high with food and drink, around which an entire family sits, laughing, smiling and joking together.
Fantasy Christmas admits no possibility that anything will be less than perfect. The turkey will be cooked exactly right, everybody will like everything (including the Brussels sprouts), the dog will not chew the presents, the broadband won't suddenly give up when we're Skyping Auntie Mollie in Australia, and everybody will get exactly the present they wanted.
Here in the world of Fantasy Christmas, no one will snap at each other, suffer from stress, flu or have the slightest worry about how, come January, they're going to pay for it all. And with Fantasy Christmas we know that there will be that moment late in the evening, when peace has descended, where we will be able to sink into the sofa, stare at the flames of the fire and rejoice in all that life is for us. And there we may even let our minds drift to all that we will achieve in the New Year because there, too, perfection will reign. But that's tomorrow's fantasy.
Unfortunately, there are serious problems with the fantasy view of Christmas. The most obvious is that to put our faith in it is to almost guarantee disappointment. The reality is inevitably going to be very different. We will probably give someone a DVD they already have, the kids will squabble, we will be endlessly reminded that it was us who forgot to buy the brandy butter, and worst and most poignant of all, there may be an empty seat at the table. Life has a habit of puncturing the balloon of perfection.
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