In Britain and Europe, Christmas isn't just for Christmas, it's a holiday that lasts halfway to Valentine's Day. Here's what I had to say on the subject in The Irish Times back in 2004 - and you'll note I manage to tie it all up to socioeconomic collapse before the end of the column:
"Are you working over Christmas?" I asked the waitress at my local diner in New Hampshire last Thursday â€“ December 23rd.
Erica looked bewildered. "No," she said. "We're closed Christmas Day."
My mistake. I'd just been on the phone to an editor in London who'd wanted early copy for the late January issue because no-one was going to be in the office "over Christmas". I'd forgotten that, in New Hampshire, "over Christmas" means December 25th. In London and much of the rest of Europe, it's a term of art stretching as far into mid-January as you can get away with.
In America, the Christmas holiday is what it says: a holiday to observe Christmas. If it happens to fall on a Saturday or Sunday, tough. See you at work Monday morning. But across the Atlantic, if Christmas and New Year fall on the weekend, the ensuing weeks are eaten up by so many holidays they can't even come up with names for them. I see from the well-named "Beautiful Ireland" calendar this newspaper sent me in lieu of a handsome bonus for calling the US elections correctly that January 3rd 2005 is a holiday in Ireland and Britain â€“ the Morning After The Morning After Hogmanay â€“ and the lucky Scots get January 4th off too â€“ the First Hogtuesday After Hogmonday? Eventually, the entire Scottish economy will achieve the happy state of their enchanted village of Brigadoon and show up for one day every hundred years.
I've spent Christmas on both sides of the pond and, on the whole, I prefer the intensity of the American version â€“ the big build-up, non-stop seasonal favourites on the radio between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, and then at midnight on December 25th, it all stops. No more "Winter Wonderland" or "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree": the entire sleighlist (as it was called back in my disc-jockey days) turns into a pumpkin, and the party's over, and December 26th is a perfectly normal working day. Whereas the last Christmas I spent in rural England is as near as I hope I ever get to experiencing my own hostage crisis. "Is it Christmas Bank Holiday Thursday yet?" "No, it's still Boxing Day."
I've nothing against a three-week Christmas in principle, but there doesn't seem to be enough to fill it up. For all the differences I've had over the years with Steven Berkoff, the Thatcher-bashing elderly enfant terrible of the West End stage, I'm not unsympathetic to his splenetic denunciation of the Brit Christmas, with its "evil telly" and its dependence for re-supplies on the corner pub, the newsagent and the off-license â€“ "the triumvirate of the soulless British life".
The French and Germans, who average 40 days holiday a year, assume the reason Americans don't take holidays is because they don't get them. In fact, it's very hard persuading them to take the ones they do get. In rural states, most Federal holidays â€“ Presidents Day, Martin Luther King Day, etc â€“ go unobserved except by banks and government agencies. It's all I can do to persuade my assistant not to come in on Christmas Day â€“ "just for a couple of hours in the morning in case there's anything urgent," she says pleadingly.
"There won't be anything urgent," I scoff. "Those deadbeats at The Irish Times won't be back in the office till the week before Valentine's Day." My excavator, who's digging a new foundation for my barn, woke me bright and early on Thanksgiving morning to put in five hours work â€“ "Thought I oughtta build up an appetite for all that turkey."
It's true there are those in America who occasionally aspire to Europe's elegant lethargy. In the special Princess Di tribute issue of The New Yorker rushed out by Tina Brown, she offered her own queenlier-than-thou farewell: "When the news came of her death, my first thoughts were of place and time â€“ of the wrongness of any royal princess, even a divorced one, contriving to be in that place at that time. In late summer, the Paris of the rich and the titled simply closes down," she wrote. "Paris in August...? The fact that she was there at all was discordant, a poignant symbol of a season of panic and flight."
Not only was the Princess of Wales' death a terrible tragedy, it seems it was also a ghastly social faux pas. But Paris in August, like London "over Christmas", is in itself a symbol of flight â€“ flight from work. Europeans can match Americans in productivity per hour; it's getting them to put in the hours that's the problem. In 1999, the average "working" German worked 1,536 hours a year, the average American 1,976. In the US, 49% of the population is in employment, in France 39%. From my strictly anecdotal observation of German acquaintances, the ideal career track seems to be to finish school around 34 and take early retirement at 42. By 2050, the pimply young lad in lederhosen serving you at the charming beer garden will be singlehandedly supporting entire old folks' homes. If tax rates were to be hiked commensurate to the decline in tax base and increase in welfare obligations, there would be no incentive at all to enter the (official) job market. Better to stay at school till 38 and retire at 39.
It would require enormous political will to shift the people of Europe. After you've turned citizens into junkies, with government as the pusher, it's very hard to turn them back again, and even harder to get them to quit (if you'll forgive the expression) cold turkey. It's all but impossible in the present Continental political culture. Europe has a psychological investment in longer holidays: the fact that they spell national suicide is less important than that they distinguish Europe from the less enlightened Americans.
Many aspects of European life are, indeed, very pleasant: jobs for life, three-week Yuletides, etc. But they're what the environmental crowd would call "unsustainable development". Despite the best efforts of lethargic Scotsmen, it can't be Christmas all year round.
from The Irish Times, December 27th 2004