Spirit of Gekko lives on in style


There were certain consolations for having to work yesterday when half the country seemed to be taking an unofficial bank holiday. Chief among them was being up early enough to hear the RTÉ business news, and a discussion about how the retail sector was doing in the run-up to Christmas. It produced one of those little shards of information that catch the light and illuminate the way we live now.

Eddie Shanahan, marketing manager of Arnotts department store in Dublin, was up-beat, and to illustrate his optimism, he gave the example of the launch of a new men's fragrance, Amber by Nino Cerruti. In the first two weeks after its introduction, apparently, Amber sold more units in Arnotts of Dublin than in Harrods of London.

I know as much about Nino Cerruti as he knows about me, but a few minutes on the Internet establishes that he is most famous for changing the male image on television and in the cinema. He designed those cringe-making Miami Vice outfits of the 1980s that made us look like pimps on holidays. He dressed Richard Gere for the appalling Pretty Woman and Michael Douglas for the role of Gordon "Greed is Good" Gekko in Wall Street.

He was, in other words, the man who dressed up 1980s moral vacuousness as if it were a style all to itself. And since people buy ludicrously expensive fragrances not just because they smell nice but because they want to associate themselves with some kind of magic, it seems that this is a style that appeals to us this Christmas. Even as the boom becomes a dying echo, a whiff of Gordon Gekko still turns us on.

It's tempting, therefore, to launch into all of that stuff about the True Meaning of Christmas, the appeals to remember whose birthday we are celebrating. But this rhetoric has become as much a part of the ritual by now as the cards, the trees, the hangovers and the frantic expenditure. And it is not, in any case, really true that Christmas is about the birth of Christ.

The early church fathers like Irenaeus and Tertullian don't mention Christmas at all in their lists of Christian holy days. When the early Christian teachers talk about efforts to fix Christ's birthday, it is with contempt. To them, the whole notion of celebrating the birthday of a God is an example of Roman religious decadence.

Even when Christians did start to speculate about the birth of Jesus, they came up with a huge variety of dates. The Gospels give no real indication of a date, though the idea that it coincides with a Roman census makes it extremely unlikely to have been in the winter. Most of the early proposed dates were in spring or early summer, but every month of the year was suggested by at least one respectable authority. It was only in the fourth century that a consensus began to form around December 25th as the date of the nativity.

The date was chosen not because it had anything to do with Christ, but because it was the Roman festival of Natalis Invicti, which marked, for the popular solar cults, the birth of the Sun. Related to the winter solstice and to the rapturous image our ancestors created at Newgrange, this notion of celebrating the return of the Sun from its apparent death on the shortest day of the year is primitive, elemental, and perhaps for all human cultures, inescapable. It is wired into our most basic experiences as a species.

It is this impulse that is the true meaning of Christmas. When they decided to make December 25th the day of Christ's birth, the church fathers obviously thought they could turn it into something else, something spiritual and holy. But they made the wrong choice, for whether we like to admit it or not, it is a physical, material instinct.

It's about lighting a fire, holing up in a warm sanctuary, marking the survival of your family, eating together, enjoying the sight of our children and the thought that our parents might just get through another winter now that the days are getting longer. And this is what people throughout Christendom have always done at Christmas.

They also, however, tried to give all of this a meaning. Christmas has always been about collective self-indulgence. But the whole point of having a particular day on which this happens is that the indulgence is deliberate, chosen, regulated by communal rituals. We create a collective space in which we can, to an extent, lose the run of ourselves.

The problem, of course, is that this space has become simply too big and too ill-defined. For the majority of us, who constitute a part of the global elite of privilege, self-indulgence has become a way of life rather than an exceptional moment. And it is controlled, not by a sense of cultural tradition, but by corporate brands. The point is no longer to enjoy a nice smell, but to relish the fact that it is the newest perfume from Nino Cerruti.

If we could resist that stuff, we might get back to the true meaning of Christmas, the ancient physical pleasure of food and wine, of laughing children and cosy elders, of lighting a fire that defies the darkness.