I’ve been struggling with semantic honesty lately. Don’t know why, but I’ve found myself analysing what we say and imagining what would happen if we took each other at our word. For an English person this could be social suicide because so much of what we say is cultural, not literal, as in, I really should be going, Oh, must you? (Thought you’d never leave…) or Good Christmas? Lovely thanks! Really quiet…(It was actually quite boring).
When my children were small, an American friend pointed out that I was setting myself up for angst by asking my children, Shall we clean our teeth? instead of her direct, Go and clean your teeth! After all, I had no intention of cleaning mine and the question set up the – quite likely – scenario of the children refusing and me chasing them until they caved in (must warn my son’s fiancee). But change is harder than you think and it felt wrong to be so straight. Why? Will Brits just do anything to avoid directness?
There’s a joke in our house that my husband will never say yes or no. Darling, are you in tonight? As far as I know. Dad, is your computer on? It certainly seems to be. Sometimes we even amuse ourselves by conspiring to get him to say the definitive words and it’s hilarious how adept he is at avoiding them. Has he been forever scarred by his past, working for a) a local authority, and b) a private company, as a surveyor? British builders are famed for scratching their heads and mentioning best case scenarios but avoiding definitive dates.
In our house on Christmas Day when we see someone for the first time we say Happy Christmas! in a heartfelt and congratulatory way, as in, It’s Christmas Day and this is the first time I’ve seen you and so I greet you with festive joy! I hasten to add that we don’t say Good Morning to each other formally on normal days but then we get up earlier and 2 out of 3 of us are so groggy and depressed that it actually is morning, that a cursory grunt is the best you can expect.
Have a lovely Christmas! we all hooted to each other on leaving work. Give someone the Christmas they’re dreaming of…says the John Lewis advert. Have yourself a merry little Christmas…croons Frank Sinatra immortalising the words of Judy Garland in the film Meet Me in St Louis. (Interestingly, the lyrics, written by Hugh Martin, were changed as they were considered too depressing.) Despite the advertising and the hype and the fact that we all know we’re spinning this impossible tale of perfection and romance, we still do it, but I wonder what we actually mean when we say these things?
Well, just so we’re clear, judging from the things that are making my Christmas merry so far, this is how you can be more precise when wishing me a happy time next year (so we both know where we are) and there’s semantic integrity: –
1. May your mother-in-law, who’s had a stroke, say as clear as anything “I really should be helping!”
2. May you find brioche in the shape of a Christmas tree.
3. Hope there’s great festive listening on Radio 4 for you while cooking.
4. Hope someone buys your minister husband a musical tie for his Christmas preach.
5. Hope no one gets ill or vomits.
6. Wishing your cat joyful hiding in bags.
7. When unearthing Christmas decs, may you find something pretty a friend made.
8. Hope your advent lights work.
9. Hoping you get fun labels (A family thing due to the boredom of writing labels. E.g. You are Matthew, We are your parents, It is Christmas, Be Happy… Love Mum and Dad)
10. May there be sunshine.
Every year we remind ourselves it won’t be perfect. People will get sick, there’ll be blocked drains or arguments or duplicate presents. But a tiny part of us, buried deep down like a vein, still hopes it will be. And God, who does Christmas every year and knows what works, just smiles and gives us a baby, hidden small between festive ties and brioche. But he’s there and sometimes, when you say the word s-l-o-w-l-y you can hear him. In the ancient magic of that word which is maybe more than just festive sibilance – C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.
And, in fact, there’s been semantic integrity all along. I just forget to notice it.
Thanks a lot to those who regularly read this blog.
Hope you’ve had a good Christmas and wishing you a Happy New Year, whatever these things may mean, for you…
What’s making yours merry?