Monday, 12 December 2011

Christmas and SL

Here's my December column for AVENUE magazine.
Photography by Brie Wonder


Christmas in Secondlife® is a slightly odd thing.  Land owners texture their soil in snow, home owners erect prim Christmas trees alongside  fireplaces (complete with socks hanging from the mantle), and the increasingly complex creations of the fashion industry manifest in a month-long trade of assorted red outfits with white and fluffy trim.  It's sort of like being trapped inside a slightly sexed-up version of a Coca-Cola commercial: on the one hand a soothing and familiar experience that activates those long-ago blurred memories of the undefinable magic and naivety of Christmas; on the other, a guilty pleasure in the incongruity between childhood innocence and adult sexuality, short santa-girl skirts hinting at pleasures in front of the fireplace that never once occurred to us on those long Christmas Eves spent in front of the window and watching the sky.

Christmas, they say, is for children; yet there are no children in SL (not actual children, that is).  There are, of course, other orientations to the festival – I imagine Christians, for example, would be fairly pressing in their desire to point this out to me.  I'm not a Christian – atheist would be the best word to describe me (although I can never quite escape the feeling that saying so is a bit like admitting membership of an extreme left-wing political movement) – but I was raised one and, as a result, listening to carols is an essential part of my Christmas each year.  This is a habit which might appear hypocritical, but which to me is no different from enjoying a few replays of 'Last Christmas' by Wham! or Shakin' Stevens' 'Merry Christmas Everyone' (the video of which, incidentally, is one of the finest examples of seasonal insincerity I've ever seen, perhaps even a masterpiece of social irony – albeit, inevitably, an unintentional one).  I just like listening to this sort of music at this time of the year.  It's a brief reaquaintance with the warm fuzziness of my long-lost childhood and the assumption buried therein that all was well with the world.

 All, of course, is not well with the world, which brings me to that other great incongruity of Christmas: the celebration of luxury and comfort whilst others are literally dying of starvation – at a rate of one every four seconds – and those who aren't actually in the process of dying are living in conditions that would represent the end of civilised life to most of us if we ever had to endure them ourselves.  But it's thanks to them and their low wages that phones and laptops and games consoles affordably fill our Christmas stockings each year in such an agreeable manner.  Did I say affordable?  Let's not forget that Christmas also represents the purchase of food and gifts which many of us actually can't afford – a phenomena not unrelated (one might even propose causally connected) to the current economical slope down which we inescapably find ourselves slipping.  Why do we do this, year after year after year?  Because we want the dream of the perfect Christmas – the lie every seasonal commercial, every greetings card and every yuletide movie colludes with – to be true.  The failure of that dream results in that other great incongruous Christmas tradition: the family argument.

But this isn't one of those let's-all-slag-off-Christmas articles; I'm as happy as the next man to turn an uneasy blind eye to human inequality during the festive period.  Last year I worked for a day at a homeless shelter on Boxing Day (that's 26 December to non-UK people) and I'll admit here and now that the dissonance created both by seeing the need of the have-nots and by being part of a too large group of people all competing to show the most seasonal warmth – and alongside all the regular volunteers, who must sicken of all these people showing up for a measly couple of days to do their bit for their conscience – left me rather wishing I'd stayed at home and watched the Bond movie on TV.  I'm quite prepared to look upon Christmas as a Good Thing, at least in theory.  And this brings me back to childhood, because there's nothing wrong in a child who knows no different to experience joy.  If Christmas for adults is a guilty pleasure then for children it's just a pleasure.

My most vivid memories of Christmas concern either my own childhood or that of other children I've known.  I remember Philip, for example: the eight-year-old when I was a teacher who was neglected by his parents to the extent that he sometimes wore adult shoes to school because no-one got him up in the morning and got him ready.  On the day of the Christmas fayre, Santa's grotto was being set up in the music room and I caught him sneaking in during playtime (recess) to peak through a tiny gap in the blinds, all his normal aggression and anger replaced by an expression of pure innocence and wonder.  I remember Nina, the little girl in Romania when I was an aid worker: Nina was so entranced by her Christmas tree she snuck back into her flat one afternoon and lit its candles, and the ensuing fire destroyed almost everything in that room.  And I remember how my  father used to set up a tape recorder on Christmas morning so he could record the reactions of my brother and I when we were very small and opening the presents left by Santa.  Christmas back then seemed so much less complicated than it does today, a feeling that's probably been experienced by every grown-up generation.  Whilst it's certainly true that 'the good old days' are a product more of our imaginations than factual historical detail, it's worth remembering that – whilst we might over-inflate the season now with unwise and unnecessary expenditure – Christmas itself is much older than modern commercialism and children have been entranced by it for far longer than the existence of Apple or Sony or Nintendo.

As I mentioned last month, November marked my entry into SL; December, therefore, was my first full month in the metaverse.  As a result, thoughts of Christmas in SL evoke memories for me of newness and exploring and not quite understanding the world – an innocence of sorts, just like the innocence we all search for when it comes to this time of year.  Perhaps Christmas, then – for those of us who embrace it – is an annual attempt at cleansing ourselves of the accumulated grime of adulthood, by which I mean the cynicism, the scepticism, the entrapment in current and employment and social affairs; the agendas; the drama; the tangled web of modern existence – whatever that might be.  We know it's a fragile bubble; we know the real world continues outside and we'll have to reconnect with it once we're saturated by our attempts at disengaging; we know, in fact, that the attempts themselves will be meagre and weak and hopelessly superficial – it's a bubble that could pop at any moment.  But we try anyway.  We try because not to do so would feel like giving up in some way on our souls.

If Christmas really is just about the chasing of a simple dream, SL might not be such a bad place to do it in.  Thanks to the metaverse, I no longer dread so much those Christmas parties of people connected to me by the loose threads of employment or geographical locale; I no longer dread so much faking jolly conversation with colleagues I can hardly stand or neighbours I barely know.  I still do all of these things, I might add – and consider them worthwhile things to do – but that feeling of dull hopelessness, that feeling of vague, numb despair is pretty much absent.  In SL, I've found meaningful connections and those internal questions we try not to ask ourselves at this time of the year – Is this it?  Is this all that I essentially am? - are plaguing me less and less.  The parties I go to inworld are – mostly – of people I've actually chosen to spend time with in my life: there's no need to fake good will, for I wish it upon them always.  And feeling that way towards distant people I've never met somehow makes it easier to feel it towards the people I have to rub shoulders with in the real world.  Perhaps I'm just getting older, but whatever it is that makes us wiser, makes us wiser just the same.

For all its Coca-Cola tinsel, there's something about the season in SL that somehow captures its essence.  Christmas isn't just for children, it's for the part of us we knew best when we were children ourselves – the part of us that doesn't see why we shouldn't all just get along.  That voice got drowned out by all the noise of the adult world, but the struggle to recapture it each year – if only for a fleeting moment – goes on.  SL allows us to drop just a little bit more of that everyday baggage – to cast aside a few more grams of cynicism as we enter the bubble.  As with all opportunities in life, it isn't one that necessarily gets taken or even seen; but seeing it and taking it might just bring you one step closer to your humanity.

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