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Merry Christmas


Once more I am celebrating Christmas in a new city, but perhaps dislocation is one of the oldest festive traditions, since there was no room at the inn and Jesus was subsequently born in a stable.  Lord Wellington is held to have mentioned this fact when asked if his birth in Ireland made him an Irishman.  His reply, as the legend goes, was that Jesus being born in a stable did not make him a horse.  So I find myself in a foreign country for a festive occassions, much like two hundred million other people who live outside their country of birth.

In the spirit of Christmas I decided to share a meal with five other students last night, four Americans and a guy from India.  That none of us, as far as I can tell, are practising Christians in the traditional sense of the term does not matter at all.  I maintain that Christmas is actually a pagan tradition that predates Christianity, and was co-opted by the religion to attract followers who did not wish to give up a favourite festival.

Even the gratuitous consumption which we love to hate at this time of year had a purpose for our ancestors.  As evidence for my theory I would like to point out how the food portions in paintings of the Last Supper increase in those paintings which were produced later.  This shows how agricultural practices have become more productive through the centuries, and food production became more efficient.  As a result, and in clear empirical contradiction of Thomas Malthus’ theory, food production has easily kept pace with population growth, with the cheapest food now also the most calorific.

However we still have our distant ancestors love of food high in carbohydrates and fat, since that was relatively rare in the world in which we evolved.  Christmas was a natural time to stock up on calories, since its timing in midwinter saw our ancestors wishing to add body weight to survive the winter.  This may seem strange when we have a national, or rather international, obsession with dieting, but ready availability and affordability of food is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In medieval Europe, or even up until relatively recently, rural people would have slaughtered the pig, or goose, and cram themselves with desperately needed calories to get through the winter.  This seems very strange to us, with obesity levels rising throughout the developed world, and consequential health issues such as heart disease and diabetes resulting from this.

Some of us will, no doubt, give up bad habits for New Year or Lent with the best of intentions, as we also remember those less fortunate during the festive season.  The latter expression of goodwill is no doubt also an old festive tradition, drawing the small communities of the past closer together at a time of year when we all desperately huddled indoors during the cold.  Now we live in a global community where people go on sun holidays during the festive season, and can contact our families around the world through the internet and satellite technology.

The technological breakthroughs which the human race has achieved in the last two centuries have made many of us able to live much more comfortable lives than our ancestors did, but it has also enabled us to consider how many people still battle to survive.  A huge proportion of human beings get by on a small fraction of what we earn, and experience the same struggle with hunger and shelter that humans have had since the beginning of time.

One of my recent courses in college touched on Darwinism, and its implications for humankind.  The term social Darwinism has been used to suggest that the success and failure of people in modern day societies is due to their innate abilities, but it is easy to forget that all of us are the descendants of successful hunter gatherers.  Our species has subsequently succeeded at farming, but the subsequent advances in technology have seen vast inequality arise throughout the world.

I will not bore readers with a long lecture on politics, philosophy and my suggestions for world peace and an end to hunger.  However we should not forget common humanity at this time of year, when those of us who have cutting edge technology and abundant food at our disposal are very lucky.  With that thought, I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a very happy and prosperous New Year.  All the best for 2013.


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