In Australia, as in many western countries, Christmas Eve is the epitome of the tension between capital and Christmas. The media usually presents this ‘last minute spending spree’ as an unalloyed positive. This may reflect the nature of the relationship between media and their customers, the retailers that spend so much in advertising. No thought is given to whether this consumption is a good thing. Scopical reported gleefully an $800 million spent across the nation today. They quoted the Retailers Association’s executive director who said, "It'll be a healthy Christmas for retailers, who want their cash registers ringing long and loud." The valid warnings from economists about rising inflation seemed almost carping in comparison.
The Fairfax outlets also today reported the NSW Business Chamber statement that Christmas shoppers have spent $6 billion across Australia in the month prior to Christmas, up six per cent on 2006. In particular, electrical goods such as plasma screens, DVD players and MP3 players did well - with sales up 13 per cent on last year. While the article did talk about debt-funded spending and increased petrol prices, there was nothing in the frame of this of how this fits in with global warming and the need to reduce consumption. The media, in collusion with their advertisers, will be a long time coming round to this argument.
But not all Christmas Eve activity is about commercial interests. For many cultures, the night of Christmas Eve is the highpoint of the Christmas festival. In Spanish speaking cultures, Christmas Eve is known as “La Nochebuena” (the Good night). Family members gather around nativity scenes common to most homes. Christmas dinner (often Pavo Trufado de Navidad – Christmas turkey with truffles), games and song are followed by La Misa del Gallo (Rooster’s Mass) at midnight. La Misa del Gallo is so called because of the tradition that the only time the rooster crowed at midnight was at Jesus’ birth.
In Scandinavia, Christmas Eve is also the highlight of the festive calendar. It gets dark in some parts of Sweden by 2pm at this time of year and the locals are anxious to make the most of the long evenings. Swedes hang lighted stars and put electric candleholders in the windows. On Christmas Eve (Julafton) homes are alive with the smell of baking which ends in a huge Christmas Eve dinner followed by present giving usually done by someone dressed up as a tomte or Christmas gnome.
But one Swedish consultancy firm are determined to turn a Christmas tradition on its head. Stockholm-based Sweco have done an analysis on population centres and the rotation of the Earth's axis and worked out that the best place for Santa’s Grotto would be a remote location in northern Kyrgyzstan at latitude, (N) 40.40 longitude (E) 74.24 to be precise. The theory is if he starts there and travelled west against the rotation of the Earth, Santa then has twice as much time to deliver presents on Christmas Eve then if he had started at the North Pole. Given the Arctic melting issues, this may need to be looked into more seriously.
Back in the UK however, the rise of anti-social behaviour has claimed another casualty. Many churches have been forced to cancel their Christmas Eve midnight masses due to problems of violence caused by drunks and intruders. Church officials have reported attacks on clergymen in the run up to Christmas. Reverend Malcolm Liles said: "I have heard of several instances where clergy have been asked for money or have been assaulted in their churches." Liles and others are calling for better employment rights for ministers, including improved safety and an end to the situation where churches have no legal responsibility for the safety of the clergy, who are deemed to be employed by God.
Its not just the Christians who are celebrating, others are celebrating the ancient midwinter festival of Yule. Pagans gathered in Modesto, Kansas on 21 December to celebrate the winter solstice. It is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and the one where the Sun God supposedly dies and is resurrected. Twenty four druids, witches and warlocks walked through an archway while others wafted white sage smoke over them and before spraying holy water from the Irish Well of St. Brigid. The sage was meant to remove negativity while the water was a blessing.
Meanwhile much larger numbers were gathering for another religious rite. Over one million Muslims have made the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) for the annual Haj. They completed the rituals which included stoning the Jamrat in Mina before performing the farewell tawaf in Makkah. Those left will stay in Mina to stone the Jamrat for the fourth day. Authorities were on high alert and imposed a strict one-way system to ensure there was no repeat of the incident at Jamrat bridge during the 2006 Haj when 362 people were killed in a crush. Makkah’s governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal warned he had noticed that many pilgrims have sneaked into holy places without having a Haj permit. “We will find solutions to all these problems,” he warned.
And on a night traditionally associated with a guiding star, astronomers have gotten their own present for Christmas Eve. Tonight is the night the planet Mars is in syzygy and will be the second brightest object in the sky next to the Moon. Syzygy is when a planet is in opposition which means it lines up with the Earth and sun, with the Earth in the middle. Mars is in opposition once every 780 days. Michael Fauerbach, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Florida Gulf Coast University, says it will appear a couple of hours after dark. “It's impossible to miss,” he said. “It's a bright orange-ish object, and it's obviously not a star”.
Don’t tell that to the wise men. Happy Christmas.