Finally, a good time to read the Pickwick papers aloud

Ahhhh. It’s Christmas time. Gather round the fire, kids, and listen to Uncle John drone on about the good old days. And plan some more. For instance, what ever happened to the Christmas tradition of the kid who can’t wait to get his big present out of the box and play with the box? Nowadays the cool stuff is smaller not bigger so you couldn’t fit into the package to play even if you could get the space-age armoured plastic open without pliers, hacksaw and blowtorch that leave lethal sharp edges.

It may be traditional to deplore the decline of tradition. But I also find myself puzzled at how to keep sacrificing meaning to materialism now that kids have so much stuff. Back before I was a boy you had nothing and clung to it. Then on that magic day, Dec. 25, you got another sock and both feet were warm for months. Wow! There’s still some room to thrill even a modern child by finding something they didn’t realize they wanted until they saw it. But less and less just because they have everything. Does anyone out there really anticipate 30 or 40, or 300 more years of new must-have toys that are faster, fancier, smaller and cheaper? Will we all end up laughing at the X-Box in our total-body simul-suits? Let’s stop that thought right there.

Let’s stop it with a treasured Yuletide memory. Years ago for Christmas my brother got a Major Matt Mason battery-powered moon rover and I got a crummy old desktop hockey game. I was crushed, at least until lunchtime. After that, we played table hockey for years while the moon rover gathered moon dust. And while I can’t go into an arcade any more (the noise noise noise noise), table hockey seems unchanged except there aren’t dead spots behind the net any more and the L.A. Kings figurines don’t have that gold and purple haze uniform. You still use real arms, fingers, eyes and reflexes to play it. Cool.

I don’t want to be crankier than is strictly necessary. Not all change is bad. For instance I like those LED lights. Not just environmentally friendly and cheaper, they also look cooler. In fact, I’m eagerly anticipating further change, because the Christmas ones are still a bit bright. Once manufacturers tone them down a bit we’re talking truly eldritch. Oh yeah. I love an old-tyme winter evening walk with those things about.

Tradition is a funny thing. For, in keeping with my tradition of quoting G. K. Chesterton constantly, “A tradition is a live thing, not a dead one.... The tradition is not kept up because it is old. It is kept up because it is nice; it was only by persistently being nice, generation after generation, that it managed to get old.” Or so you hope.

The Canadian Reader’s Digest recently quoted a reader who “was recently talking with a friend who bemoaned her family’s lack of holiday rituals. ‘My family doesn’t have any traditions,’ she complained. ‘We just do the same thing year after year after year’.” As Lemony Snicket reminds us, “Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it ... Piracy, for example, is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean we should all attack ships and steal their gold.” And I was charmed by National Review’s John Derbyshire being “raised in a rustic English county where nothing much had happened for a millennium or so. The nearby prominence that official maps showed as Hunsbury Hill was known to us as Danes’ Camp, a name it must have acquired in King Alfred’s time...” But I like calling it Danes’ Camp much more than I would like it actually being Danes’ Camp.

Also Christmas pudding. Setting it on fire, fine. But eating it? This isn’t Merrie England. We aren’t up to our hip-waders in Danes and down to our last handful of walnuts, some things that if they aren’t raisins don’t look any closer, and was this flour brown when we harvested it? No sir. Our tradition is rich chocolate Christmas cake with red and green sparkles and icing sugar. It dates back nearly half a decade.

So I have another idea. I want to go forward by going backward, to before even playing in a cardboard box, back to when an orange in your stocking was a treasure and even the pecan was sort of OK. In many ways Charles Dickens invented the traditional Christmas we enjoy today, with an assist from Prince Albert on the tree (evergreen in house: good change; black plastic tree: bad change) and the Coca Cola company on Santa’s suit. So my idea is to read Dickens, preferably aloud. And not just A Christmas Carol, though the 1951 film remains a timeless classic. This year I’m thinking Pickwick Papers, especially if I can in time-honoured fashion trap and bore the young folks.

Kids, I’ll say, we may beep and hum and glow and have plastic surgery but we are still human, if barely. There comes a time when the neon, or post-neon, doesn’t do it for us not because it’s technically inadequate but because it’s technical. At which point let’s draw our chairs close around the fake fire, pour a glass of George Washington’s eggnog and read aloud.

It stimulates the imagination, and there’s an old tradition worth making new again. Say, does Dickens podcast?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson