Retro-cycling childhood

It’s a very traditional time of year. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, New Year, -whatever the highlight is of your winter, chances are it’s an annual celebration that has its roots in your early years. Christmas, particularly, is geared towards childhood, whether that is celebrating it or revisiting it after you are supposed to be long past the age of hanging a stocking by the fire. But what do these celebrations really do for our children? (Pile of presents aside, of course.)

There are practical functions to winter festivities, of course. The celebration of light and food in the middle of the leanest, darkest season of the northern hemisphere – it’s the central point that gets me, at least, through to the possibility of spring when the snowdrops start to appear the next year. And many of our ridiculous childhood rituals have sensible roots in those desperate parental threats: if you’re good you’ll get presents, if you’re bad you’ll get a stocking full of coal. He knows if you’ve been naughty… 

The ubiquitous symbolism of Christmas is recognisable without any labelling. Photo by the author.

And yet the emotional attachment placed in the traditions of Christmas goes far beyond such lip service for the sake of bribery. To fail to take part in the festivities of childhood is the kind of social rebellion that is simply incomprehensible for many. It is not only that we feel the need to participate in social activities like charitable events or family dinners; as individuals, even as adults, we buy clothes, decorate our surroundings, choose music and buy foods specifically to celebrate a religion many of us no longer believe in or a holiday whose myths were disproved before we even reached adolescence. Why is it so taboo to tell a child their presents don’t, in fact, come from a cheerful bearded man who slides down a probably non-existent chimney to deliver them?

Last year I blogged about the ways traditions act as a way to bind together a society, to give us the mental framework which maps out the unspoken rules of human interaction. When we pass on our own illogical Christmas rituals to our children, we are fitting them for participation in a big, messy, illogical world by showing them the pathways which will help them to demonstrate, through the appropriate use of the symbols and rituals of the social calendar, that they are within a community; they understand the rules and norms of behaviour which qualify them for inclusion and acceptance in a family, nation, or culture. Adults who celebrated different rituals in their own pasts, or whose family backgrounds are not conducive to re-creating childhood patterns, may be left with an abiding sense of isolation or exclusion as they cannot participate in social celebrations with the same understanding or emotional freedom as those around them.

But there is a deeper motive to encouraging children to perpetuate myths and rituals than simply duty. We are not only locating them within a wider society; we are locating their childhood in relation to our own, and their socialisation provides a recreation and reaffirmation of our own.

Children’s Christmas gift books: how many of them look familiar? Photo by the author

I, personally, have a deep and abiding nostalgic attachment to the books of Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl, Dick King-Smith, Janet and Allen Ahlberg, and television shows like Rosie and Jim, the Magic Roundabout, and Noggin the Nog. (Sesame Street, on the other hand, did not feature in my childhood, so I can take it or leave it, which will undoubtedly cause horror among some readers.) In my own love for these things, and the reminiscences they inspire around my own happy childhood, I have the basis for my desire to perpetuate these things among children. These art forms have a virtue in themselves, I do not doubt; yet logically know that because I had them as a child, and I was happy, they are not intrinsically required in order for a happy childhood to be achieved. I still want these things to continue to be loved, nevertheless, perhaps because I am aware that I no longer can gain the level of fascination that I once could from them and wish to experience it vicariously. Or perhaps I am aware that the world is changing fast around me and that if a younger generation is not introduced to my childhood relics while at an age to appreciate them, their value will be forgotten, and with it, my own ability to situate myself in my social surroundings through shared memories.

In teaching children to recreate our own childhoods, we teach them life skills beyond the practical; they gain the ability to interpret cultural symbols, to demonstrate their own awareness of communal norms and thereby earn social inclusion, and even to learn to accept the mind-bendingly illogical when it is a necessary part of a social structure – especially, as in the case of Father Christmas, when it results in significant material reward. Simultaneously, we develop and reconstruct our own process of socialisation, creating a future generation which understands and perpetuates our own emotional and cultural symbology and our place within a continuing flow of legacy and reinvention. from history to future.

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