The Colour of Christmas

One of the most important techniques for being creative is the art of noticing. In fact this is perhaps the most important technique in sentience and consciousness: ‘I think, therefore I am’ is really prefixed by ‘I noticed that I was thinking’.

It’s nearly Christmas and I’ve noticed something. So many decorations are using a new colour, completely unknown to Christmas until very recently; blue. As we change from high voltage bulbs to low power LEDs, someone must have noticed that high energy (and until very recently, expensive) blue LEDs are the brightest.

Can we have (as Shakin’ Stevens sang) a blue Christmas? What colour is Christmas? Most of us secretly want a white Christmas. The last one of those I saw was in 1980. Subsequent ones seem to have been more grey, if judged by looking out of the window. The archetypal colours of the Victorian Christmas were green and red. The green is brought into the house with the evergreen of the tree and holly, reminding us that life continues during the harsh winter. The red of the holly berries, robin red breast and mulled wine connects both pagan and Christian thoughts of blood and sacrifice. The outfit of the ‘jolly old elf’ has been fixed as red, with white trimmings.

One of the gifts of the Magi at the nativity was gold, in reality just a fairly uncommon heavy metal. It’s next to platinum on the periodic table which is rarer and yet gold is the emotionally evocative substance. Gold is the standard the world agreed to base its finances on. There is something about the colour of gold. Christmas is also a festival of light, representing hope that the sun will return. We bring lights inside our houses, the gold of candlelight and the reflected sparkle from tinsel. In recent years foils and tinsels seem to have fallen out of favour, replaced by an enthusiasm for electric flashing lights.

Christmas uses all these colours to evoke within us some form of emotional response, of excitement, of hope, of wonder, of the possibility of magic. I’m dreaming of a multicoloured Christmas.

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The Magic of Christmas

“What are you doing for Christmas?” – a question we could be asked at anytime from September onwards. No other public holiday commands such importance in Britain than Christmas that it is planned and prepared for almost six months earlier.

Christmas’ critics make the mistake of worrying that either the religious aspect doesn’t apply to them, or that the commercialisation has diluted the spiritual significance. A woman in America, after seeing that her local Church was advertising a Christmas service was reported to have said “Even the Church is cashing in on it.” It seems that paradoxes such as these that give Christmas its fascinating nature. Even in the cynical wonder-less world of twenty-first century there is still magic to be had – if you know where to look.

Christmas has a power, stronger than Cromwell who had it banned, only for it to survive underground and resurface when the coast was clear. It is from those sixteen years when public celebration was outlawed that the concept of spending Christmas with the family became a new tradition, which continues today.

The myths and traditions surrounding Christmas have their origins going back thousands of years, way back before the birth of Christ. The first 25th of December as a celebration of Christ’s birth was celebrated in Rome in AD 336. (Further east the date had previously been set as the 6th January, giving rise to the twelve days of Christmas, from the official date to the older date). It became an official celebration in Britain in AD 567 when the Council of Tours declared the twelve days as festaltide. Ethelred ordained it to be a time of peace when all strife must cease in 991.

Christmas is as multi-cultural as you can get. Just think of the ‘traditional’ Christmas day: the turkey; an Aztec bird, a German tree, a pudding made from Asian spices, a carol about the Bohemian King Wenceslas to the tune of a Swedish spring song, pagan magic, mistletoe and holly, wood spirits dressed up as angels and a Russian saint. ‘Christmas’ has had many names and many traditions over the millennia and has proved notably stubborn to give any of them up.

The religion of the Kalands gave us our calendar which sets January 1st as the first day of the new year. Prior to this, in the Celtic year, November 1st was New Year’s Day and it was on the night before, All Hallows Eve, that people believed the souls of the dead would return for just one night. It is from the Celts that we have the concept of ‘eve’ as they considered the evening before an important day to be as revered as the day itself.

There seems to have always been a festival on or around the 25th December. In the age of magic it was the winter solstice and later with other pagan influences including Roman ones, the festival of the unconquered sun and the worship of Saturn, which was also on the 25th.

During the agricultural age the twelve days of Christmas were granted as a holiday, but in the industrial age of recent centuries, the holiday shrunk, and continues to shrink to the bare minimum. The erosion of Sunday as a day of rest in recent years and twenty-four hour shopping has reduced the communal rest to levels unheard of since the Victorian workhouses.

But the modern world has had an effect to balance out those changes too. With television and mass communication, Christmas is a shared experience more than ever. The ingredients of Christmas are not spoiled if you look selectively. It has lost the odd custom here and there, but after the setbacks of the Cromwell years, Christmas underwent a massive resurgence in the nineteenth century escalating to the phenomenal proportions of today.

Everyone is familiar with the image of the Victorian Christmas, mainly from Charles Dickens’ novels like ‘A Christmas Carol’, but why did the Victorian fascination with Christmas begin? Perhaps it was because of the nature of society that had become the take shape during that time. For the wealthy, times were good and people had time on their hands to be miserable while for the poor, times were bad. Both sections of society then began the concept of looking back to a Golden Age when life was easier and simpler than the harsh world of their present. In effect then, the Victorians invented ‘retro’, the idea of borrowing ideas and style from the past whilst wishing today was as rosy as the ‘Good Old Days’. It was this imagined Golden Age that they tried to revive in Christmas celebrations, a time so rooted in tradition that it has become tradition for tradition’s sake.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we are at the end of time; Christmas is still evolving, still expanding. Some traditions fade away while some grow ever stronger. Take for example the jolly figure of Santa Claus, or to give him his British name, Father Christmas. There is an important difference between the two. Santa Claus is how he is known in America where he wears a bobble hat. In Britain, more so now in the North, he is still Father Christmas and wears a hood where his existence goes back long before Saint Nicolas, even back into pagan times as the god Saturn, the Scandinavian god of Yule and the Green Man. Until Victorian times his clothes were green and he wore a holly wreath if he wasn’t wearing his hood and cloak.

A popular Urban myth is that he was an invention of the Coca Cola company. This is not quite the case. What is true is that they used a more clean cut and standardised image of Santa Claus for their successful 1931 advertisements which was later adopted by other artists to form the definitive American Santa Claus, which America then began to ship back across the Atlantic back to Europe along with their version of Halloween which had all but died out in its native Europe.

New traditions of recent years have established themselves; the Christmas number one record, the Queen’s Speech, even the old tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas night has survived in the Christmas feature film on television. Nowadays we are just as likely to hear Bing Crosby or Slade’s Christmas songs as any ‘traditional’ carol. ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is still in there but layer upon layer of the modern Christmas has been added.

Christmas is criticised for sentimentality and yet it is that sentiment that becomes good-will and charity at a time when those in need have greater need than any other time of the year. This Christmas sentiment is most notable in the phenomenal story of Christmas 1914 when the slaughter stopped in the trenches and enemies exchanged cigarettes and food and played a game of football. Christmas sentiment was the trigger, initially on the German side, to question the war. The truce lasted several days and in some areas up to a week. Only when the generals ordered fraternising with the enemy to be punishable with death did trust turn to suspicion and the guns started booming again. Alfred Anderson, who served with the 5th Battalion the Black Watch and the last surviving member of the Christmas Truce died in November this year aged 109.

Yes it is tacky and sometimes tasteless, but decking our homes in plastic trees, flashing coloured lights and silver tinsel is possibly the only way we know to rekindle the magic and mark the occasion as special, for a reason that is lost to most of us.

Christmas is the perfect marriage of our needs and desires, both ancient and modern. It is the ultimate festival, providing the greatest sense of occasion of all. It is an agreed, shared, communal lift. It is today as it was in ancient times: the festival of birth, of hope, of light, in the black barren darkness of winter. In our electric lit, atmospherically controlled world we have no obvious physical needs, but are there other needs? Does the festive season lighten the darkness in our hearts? Perhaps it does remind us of a Golden Age, the mythical Victorian Christmas or perhaps our own childhoods, if they were more tranquil than our current lives.

It is a celebration of the family and of friendship. A time of greed and yet of charity. A time, as in 1914, of questioning the world. It is a deadline, a marker, representing the achievements of the past year and all the hopes and dreams of the years to come, like standing on the edge of eternity.

Overall it is special, relieving us from the ordinariness of the rest of the year, so that for a very short time the leaden weight that oppresses us is somehow lifted to reveal our natural state of joy.

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Are Art and Money the Same Thing?

I used to think that we could abolish money in the future as part of some Star Trek style Utopia. Now I’m not so sure. I think if we didn’t have money, we’d invent it as it’s so useful in comparing and transferring value to one another. As far as we can tell, we’re the only animal to have a system of currency. We’re also the only animal to have art. The two, money and art, may have not evolved together but may be more closely related than we think.

If you have created a piece of art, you have created something of value greater than the raw materials the art is constructed from. So the painting you have created is worth something and has a value in the same way that a note of currency has value and is worth something. Both can be exchanged for something else of equivalent value.

This is interesting as during the Renaissance, when magnificent works of art were created and revered then and now as masterpieces, those works were created because of an entrepreneurial spirit and the beginning of the system of capital which drove cultural and intellectual changes. A painter or sculpturer’s reputation was based on his ability to arouse commercial interest in his work, through direct payment, commission or sponsorship and not through any abstract criteria of artistic merit. The same principles apply today, but are not understood or taught correctly to many of todays potentially great artists. That is why so many artists, be they painters, actors, dancers or musicians remain poor.

Think about it. If a piece of ‘art’ has no value, it is not deemed proper art. Perhaps a problem is that so many of today’s up-and-coming artists find money ‘offensive’. That is why they are poor. They wait around to be ‘spotted’ or ‘discovered’. But in an age of abundance that is filled with so many works, there is very little chance of that happening. Van Gough was ‘discovered’ 11 years after he had died penniless.

A great artist realises that he or she has the potential to literally print money by creating value almost out of thin air from their talents and raw materials. The same criteria must apply that applies to all business: potential customers must be convinced that your creations have value. Money and art are part of the same thing after all.

Have a look at this poem called ‘But is it Art?

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Multitasking is for Morons

People go on about multitasking. Usually they trot out the same old chestnut that women are better at multitasking. Usually that’s stated as an attack on men to ‘prove’ that women are better than men at something.

Why people are so insecure that they want to waste time pointing out differences between the sexes to gain some sort of tribal upper-hand escapes me. What people also seem to overlook is that all these things are ‘on average’. It doesn’t mean that because you’re a woman you are going to be better at such and such or worse at such and such. And it doesn’t mean that skills such as multitasking and reading maps can’t be learnt. There are plenty of women who can read maps better than the average man and plenty of men who are better at multitasking than the average woman.

But multitasking is not a ‘great triumph’, it’s a curse and a scourge to your creativity. Being able to do lots of things at the same time sounds like a great idea in our time constrained world. But when we look at what tasks multitaskers actually do concurrently they are all mundane left-brain tasks. The danger is that such an emphasis has been put on multitasking that it’s created yet another benchmark of left-brain prowess that people feel they need to live up to. People are given yet another reason not to concentrate on doing one thing well. People again fail to live in the moment and to take the time to enjoy life, instead packing in as many robotic tasks as possible.

Creative tasks demand full absorption. They require freedom from a mind that is worried about ‘getting things done quickly and efficiently’. A painter, sculptor, writer or composer needs to take as long as it takes to create their work. They are not clock watching, cutting corners or doing anything else while they are committed to the creative act. You’re not going to generate that killer idea for your business while you run about doing a load of other stuff. Meanwhile your competitor may well have just come up with something wonderful.

My wish for you is to gain access at a conscious level to your inventive, intuitive and imaginative powers that normally go untapped, or only fleetingly accessed in our left brain dominated, verbal, technological culture and education system.

Save multitasking for mindless jobs and spend as much of your life as possible being mindful instead.

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Stop the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign

I don’t like the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign and I think it should be stopped with immediate effect. But before you click away in disgust, please read on for my reasoning here.

I’ve studied loads and loads of some of the best goal setting techniques. I’ve studied the techniques of some of the most successful business leaders and spiritual leaders. I understand the ‘law of attraction’, visualization and prayer. In all that stuff, when you want to achieve something, or change something or gain something, the thing you must do, at all times, without exception is to focus on the thing you want, not the thing you don’t want.

‘Make Poverty History’? What are we focusing on there then? On Poverty and on History! Ok, some clever so-and-so came up with this catchy title, I can hear them now (“It’s a play on words! It means ‘let’s end poverty by making it historical’ and ‘let’s make history within the concept of poverty’….”)

Sometimes you can be ‘too clever’ for your own good. We should not be telling everyone to wear the words ‘Poverty’ and ‘History’ on little plastic armbands to remind them of poverty and history all day long. We should be telling everyone what we really want.

In the 1970s in the UK there was a campaign that started with the aim to make sport available for everyone. What do you think they called the campaign? “Make Couch Potatoes History?” no, of course not, it was “Sport for All.

So ask yourself, what do we really want? Have a think about it. Shouldn’t we really want to make everyone wealthy? Happy? Healthy? Shouldn’t we be focusing on happiness, abundance and the future? Shouldn’t we be focusing on not lifting people out of poverty but pulling them up into wealth and abundance? Shouldn’t our campaign be something like “Make Everyone Wealthy Now”? I know it doesn’t sound clever or flash. The truth seldom does.

The words we use are important. The words we repeat in our heads are important. The words we focus on is what we get. Make sure you focus on the things you want.

And don’t even think about getting me started on “The War on Terror”…

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