Some Christmas traditions can be personal, like a ritualistic re-watching of The Box of Delights or an unfathomable return appointment with Mr Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All the Way. For my part, I used to have my photo taken with a different Christmas tree every year for the web diary, until I lost interest.
This year finds me posing by a tree once more. I’m in the market square of Bildeston, Suffolk, where I’m currently living. In fact, I was less interested in the tree than in another tradition visible in the square: a crocheted cap on the post box, featuring an elaborate Christmas cottage. This is an example of ‘yarnbombing’, the anonymous art of local knitters, typically to brighten up post boxes for a short time. This year they have covered the square’s traffic bollards as well, with woollen caps in the shape of Christmas puddings. I love this kind of thing, as it means I can talk about Christmas camp.
One of my books of the year was Paul Baker’s Camp: The Story of the Attitude that Conquered the World (2023), and not just because it cites my PhD thesis. As calendar festivals go, Christmas, Baker argues, is more camp than, say, Halloween. While Halloween is rich in parodic frivolity, Christmas has the extra symptoms of incongruous excess, failed sincerity, and sheer bad taste.
Christmas camp can sometimes be put to serious use, though. According to Baker’s book, when the Stonewall riot took place in New York in 1968, those involved taunted the police by forming a line of high-kicking, synchronised dancing in the style of the all-girl dance troupe the Rockettes. The Rockettes are one of New York’s own Christmas traditions, having put on the same festive show at Radio City Music Hall since the 1930s. Transplanted to the Stonewall riot, this camp style of dancing, with its anachronistic, overtly feminized ‘kick line’, became a defensive weapon that particularly suited gay identity.
Camp can do good as an aesthetic too. By playing with notions of exaggeration, it offers a sense of spontaneous distance from the normal world. It’s that psychological space that can offer somewhere to escape, or to belong. Camp is not for everyone, but it remains a tool in the universal human toolbox of how to cope.
When yarnbombing happens in an English village, there is also the suggestion of English cosiness being camped up. Popular films like The Holiday indulge in visions of Tudor-framed English cottages in the snow, while the book charts and TV schedules are full of ‘cosy crime’ mysteries set in English villages, from Agatha Christie to the bestsellers of Richard Osman.
This is obviously unabashed escapism. One of the more poetic writers of the English countryside, Ronald Blythe, who died this year, was careful to depict Suffolk as a place of struggle and poverty as much as beauty. This endures; in Duke Street, a few yards from Bildeston Market Square, is a tub for donations to the local food bank.
But I’m fine with cosiness as an art form. Truman Capote’s story A Christmas Memory is cosy enough to have been adapted as a TV movie by the Hallmark Channel, though the 1966 version with his own narration is the one to seek out. It’s about unconventional yet vulnerable people living in rural isolation. Capote manages to keep any excess of emotion – the same sense of spontaneous excess that sentimentality shares with camp – this side of poignant.
Whether cosy, camp, or otherwise, the lesson of yarnbombing is to channel time and energy into not just making new art – or content as it’s now called – but putting it out into the world. One never knows if others might take delight or comfort from your efforts, so do it anyway. This year has seen new music from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, so age and even death is no excuse.
With this in mind, I wish you safety, health and happiness in 2024. Onwards!
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Tags: christmas 2023, New Year's message