The shoebox is full of stars. Crammed together, an entire galaxy waits to be rummaged through. A green star smears glitter on my fingers. A blue star glistens, its thousand tiny beads arranged into limp points, a starfish thrown up to the heavens. Gold, metallic snowflakes turn to stars by association. I am seeing stars in everything, like a cartoon character bonked on the head by a giant wooden mallet. Stars swirl around the brain. It is 2016, and the shocks keep coming.
On the night before Christmas, a heavily bearded man, using any one of a number of pseudonyms, will enter the country illegally, despite lacking any marketable or transferable skills, and without declaring to Amber Rudd how many of his reindeer are of foreign origin; he will proceed to break, uninvited, into our homes, sometimes even into our children’s rooms, without a valid DBS certificate, where he will leave suspicious packages unattended, and then drive off in his sleigh under the influence. He, however, is welcome here.
Immigration was not the only issue Brexit was fought over, but it was perhaps the dominant one. And if I am finding it hard to muster up a merry, festive spirit in such an unrelentingly dark, uncertain year, then it might be something to do with this irresolvable opposition of the words ‘Christmas’ and ‘Brexit’, this dissonance between them. The Christmas story, after all, is a story of migration, full of shifts and movement – Magi from the east, shepherds from their fields to the city – and acts of unexpected hospitality, such as the innkeeper offers to Mary. Its values are antithetical to those that characterised the Leave campaign: inclusion over division, harmony over disharmony. According to Luke , Jesus was born in exile, his mother having migrated from Galilee to Judea at the decree of a Roman Emperor; according to Matthew , he became a refugee after his birth, fleeing to Egypt to escape the meaningless violence of a tyrannous ruler. The parallels with Syria are stark.
This year will be our first Christmas after Brexit. Or will it be our last Christmas before Brexit? Nothing, this Christmas, feels certain. We are caught in a funny place between decisions being made and the consequences of those decisions becoming clear, between guns being loaded and ‘triggers’ – a word that keeps rearing its ugly head in the news – being pulled. It is as though the Christmas presents have been bought but not unwrapped. We have a vague idea of what’s in there, but we’re not really sure if it’s what we wanted. We’re not really sure what we wanted. We stare dumbly at the wrapping paper, so shiny it blinds us, waiting to discover what’s inside, some of us desperately seeking a way – a second referendum, a supreme court ruling, a rewind button – to get out of having to unwrap the present at all.
The box in front of me – a green shoebox, Puma, reading in light pencil ‘TREE ᴄ̶ᴀ̶ɴ̶ᴅ̶ʟ̶ᴇ̶ DECORATIONS and ‘DON'T SQUASH!’ – is far less threatening. I remember, as a child, flying Lego spaceships between these decorations, through the branches of the tree, past shiny bauble-planets and twinkling coloured stars, through tinsel asteroid belts and the interstellar detritus of dropping pine needles. Everything in the box is comforting and familiar. One face, in particular, reappears again and again, always clad in red and white: that of Santa Claus. Despite his offences, he is always welcome, maybe because he is a symbol of reassurance, of dependability, turning up the same as ever, year after year, never changing.
Yet even he, in the shoebox, seems unsure of himself. The first time I find him he is made of felt, his eyes small and lost and innocent, like a doll from Sylvanian Families. The next time he is made of flimsy scraps of paper, glue oozing from his neck like a nasty infection. Twice he disguises himself as a bell. One is made of clay, with a hat drooping comically to the left, and the unusual touch of blue, glazed gloves. The other is made of metal, with long, spindly arms, one pointing up and the other down, like the Assyrian demon Pazuzu, or John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Even Santa, it seems, can’t make his mind up; he’s pointing all over the place. His hands are the FTSE, in flux. His feet dangle, useless clappers. I shake him and he doesn’t even ring. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by…
What do we know for certain?
We know that on the twenty-fifth day of December, people across Britain, some of whom call themselves ‘leavers’ and some of whom call themselves ‘remainers’ and some of whom just call themselves ‘people’, will celebrate the festival of Christmas.
We know that the Brexiteers, who sound like a merry band of yuletide elves but are actually a large group of mostly ordinary people of various ages and educational levels, for whom a broad range of self-interested calculations and genuine worries and misconceptions and reasoned arguments and downright lies has given cause to vote to leave the European Union, will celebrate this festival in much the same way as the remainers, though slightly more suspicious, perhaps, of the Brussels sprouts.
We know that shortly after this Christmas, May, or maybe not May, may or may not trigger this thing we call Article 50, which may or may not trigger this thing we call Brexit, without really understanding what this means, although we have been helpfully told that it ‘means Brexit’, in what is possibly another cost-cutting measure by the government to make dictionaries shorter by replacing the definitions of words with the words themselves, along the lines of: pudding (n): means ‘pudding’.
We know, beyond that, little.
The ironic thing about all this unknowingness is that it is our fear of the unknown which has driven us here. It seems we are caught, always, between our desire for change and our fear of it. We oscillate between them. We fear the unknown and find comfort in the familiar, yet we also seek improvements, corrections, advancements. This is the fundamental difference between being conservative (that is, seeking to conserve, to preserve, to avoid change) and being progressive (that is, seeking to progress, to move forward, to change). Both are innately human drives.
The success of Brexit, it occurs to me, comes from the lie that we can have both simultaneously. This is not a uniquely British lie: we have seen its believers electing Trump in the United States and supporting Le Pen in France. Nostalgia satisfies both the desire for and the fear of change. To change things back to the way they were – to turn back time – is the ultimate fantasy. It is there in Trump’s slogan, ‘make America great again’, which implies a change to something that’s not a change, a change (the active verb ‘make’) back to the familiar (‘again’). It is there in the rhetoric around Brexit, the idea that we can ‘take our country back’ : not from immigrants or bureaucrats or experts, but from the future. These slogans prey on the fantasy that we can both have change and not have change simultaneously. But this is impossible. You can’t have your Christmas cake and eat it.
Yet if nostalgia is at the root of Brexit, then it is also at the root of many of our confused ideas about Christmas. In my shoebox, on the face of a small, plastic, green and red drum, is depicted what might be called a traditional Christmas scene, enacted by bears. One of the bears looks like Bramwell Brown. They sit under a tree, surrounded by presents, playing with their new toy, which – in a rather self-referential twist – is also a drum. It is just the sweet, quaint, traditional scene that The Sunday Telegraph would have us believe is under threat from political correctness , a thought The Daily Express builds on in their headline, ‘mass migration may kill off core British traditions such as Christmas’ . Yes, that core British tradition: a festival rooted in the Roman winter solstice, via the Germanic pagan rituals of Yuletide, co-opted to celebrate the birth of a Middle Eastern Jew.
Christmas, then, has been warped by the same false nostalgia that lies at the root of much Brexit rhetoric. Yet it remains, equally, an expression of just the opposite: an expression of renewal, hospitality, love, and the embrace of the other. What we emphasise within it is our decision. It seems impossible, to me, to be truly anti-Brexit without embracing and listening to those who are pro-Brexit. If all that falls out of the Brexit cracker are bitter, sarcastic jokes on little scraps of paper, a silly hat and a tiny, useless pen, then we are at a loss. But if the Christmas dinner table might act as an opportunity to come together, to sit and share the same food with parents and grandparents and cousins and uncles, whatever their Brexit views, if Christmas carolling might be seized as an opportunity to sing something positive to our neighbours, whatever way they voted, then Christmas might be turned into something not necessarily anti-Brexit, but something that resists the divisions and divides which the Brexit vote, at the fault of both sides, has deepened. That is, in Christmas card terms, it might be a time of peace and unity, despite our differences.
In my family, we used to argue over what kind of Christmas tree we preferred. For a while, I advocated for a colour coordinated tree, with only one kind of bauble on it, a matching shade of tinsel, and white lights. My mother favoured coloured lights set on bizarre, impossible-to-predict patterns of flashes and twinkles, tinsel in every colour and thickness we had scrapped together over the years, chocolates which no-one would get round to eating and which would inevitably melt under the heat of all the lights, and a whole vomited array of baubles and bells and figures, handed down from grandparents and gifted by relatives, uncovered at Christmas markets and made in primary school craft lessons. Had I ever got my way, this shoebox in front of me would be far less interesting. There’d be no glass penguin. No tree made of brightly coloured buttons. No angels made of horsehair, bunched at the top with gold ribbon. No glittery lobster. No snowman made of tightly spiralled, corrugated paper, his scarf and nose and hands made of felt, with a pink asterisk, also felt, inexplicably on his belly. No stars at all.