Thursday, December 4, 2008

Never out of season in a Christian land

"Just because you're older than the rest of, Chris, it doesn't mean you know more," Fflur said as we staggered our way through the surreality of Saint Fagan's at night.


"Oh, dear," she said. "That's going on the blog, isn't it?"

"Most certainly."

We were there -- along with several other members of our Folk Studies class (a) -- to partake in the museum's Christmas Nights festivities, a hodgepodge of random Christmastime things packed into the museum's sprawling grounds.

For those of you playing along at home, or indeed anywhere that isn't Cardiff, "museum" is a misleading term when referring to Saint Fagan's. In American parlance a museum is a largish, boring building filled with boring things. Americans only ever go to museums when we are visiting other places. We do this because we are told this is the thing to do. And we feel the need to somehow vindicate the cost of our having travelled to wherever it is that we've gone by doing things that we perceive to be cultural before doing those things that we would be doing at home, which is usually getting drunk and hitting on the waitresses at TGI Friday's.

Saint Fagan's has a largish, boring building. And indeed, there are a handful of boring things contained within -- incongruous bits of farm equipment, random old "Popeth Yn Gymraeg" propaganda and so on. But for the most part the building is consumed by a restaurant, a cafe and a gift shop. Stretching for acres outside the building is a collection of houses, buildings, chapels and churches from the various corners of Wales that have been disassembled, transported and painstakingly restored on the grounds. This is the actual "museum."

Rather than a museum, it is more of strangely authentic Thomas Kincade-ian village. For Minnesotans, it is slightly reminiscent of the Renaissance Festival site in Shakopee, except that these buildings really are several hundred years old and sadly no one shouts "Huzzah!"

(Equally, since Saint Fagan's was partly established as a political statement of Wales' unique and separate identity from the rest of Britain, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will shout, "Twenty pounds for the king!")

I am a strong proponent of Saint Fagan's and find that it is a great way of quickly showing visitors to Wales that they were a bit silly in scheduling so little time for the place. Wales doesn't carry any real traveller cred; almost no one, including the Welsh, is impressed if you tell them you've visited this small nation on the western edge of Britain. Getting people to come out to visit me is often a tooth-pulling process because the person feels that they won't be able to brag to friends about having come here. And what's the point of going anywhere if you can't brag about it? More often than not they will allow themselves just 24 hours. Once the very heart of Celticism, home to the legends of Arthur and Merlin, populated with more castles than any other place on the planet, with a language tradition that is older than Christ -- yeah, 24 hours should cover it.

Actually, Saint Fagan's doesn't really address any of those things but is still usually enough to make friends audibly regret deciding to give Wales so little attention. It is one of my favourite places to spend an afternoon. It's safe to say that I am there, wandering about, at least once a fortnight.

Because it is in Wales, where people understand the value of a hard day's work and, equally, the value of not working, St. Fagan's promptly shuts at 5 p.m. So generally I only ever see it during the day. In the dark of night, when the Christmas celebrations are held, it becomes surreal. The familiar paths and buildings suddenly become twisted in my head and people seem to appear and disappear into the darkness. Everything swirls in the torchlight.

"This is the perfect setting for you to perform a few stories," said the head of my department, who had appeared behind me on the path.

She had not come with the group of students but suddenly there she was.

"This is Chris," she said to a young boy I presume to be her son. "He told us a story about a monster in Bute Park."

"Chris can tell all kinds of stories," Fflur said, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm.

I turned to look at Fflur, turned back, and the Welsh department head was gone.

In the 1963 holiday song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Andy Williamstells us:
"There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow.
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago."

I have always heard those lyrics and thought: "Scary ghost stories?! The fuck? What does that have to do with Christmas?"

But wrapped in the cold and darkness of St. Fagan's it is easy to see how tales of the supernatural would spring from one's everyday experiences. And indeed, ghost stories are a tradition -- just not one that I was raised in. In the same way that the lyrics to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are not a part of Fflur's tradition (b).

For some reason, I am trying to immerse myself more fully in Christmas this year. I've got the nigh 90 holiday-themed songs on my iTunes on constant rotation, Friday I'm heading to the Bath Christmas Market, next week I'm going to a Christmas concert, I am stuffing myself with mince pies and brandy and so on. Some part of me is grasping at these "traditions" (some of which are being created on the spot), trying to root myself.

And so this is how I've ended up purchasing A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books,a collection of Charles Dickens' Yuletide works. I had had no idea there was more than one.

The story of Scrooge has slowly become one of my favourites over the years, I think because I can very much relate to the idea of being grumpy and hating the world. And also, I think the scene in which Scrooge's girlfriend "releases" him of his obligation to love her -- stating it in financial terms for him to understand -- is the saddest thing in the world. In one of the productions of the story that I have seen (I think the one starring Patrick Stweart), Scrooge's modern self screams in vain at the visage of his former self: "You fool! You fool!" And I imagine that if ghosts wanted to haunt me they could do so far more effectively in showing me failed loves than my grave.

It is in productions -- films and stage -- that I have previously encountered A Christmas Carol. This year is the first time that I have endeavoured to sit down and read the actual words of Dickens. It has taken me this long because I formed a deep and gilded hatred of all things Dickens back when I was in Mrs. Morgan's classroom at Jefferson High School. We had to read Great Expectations, and its failure to be anything at all like Dave Barry meant that I had no interest whatsoever. Add to this my pro-Texas (and inherently pro-America) upbringing and I despised being required to read the pompous old words of a long-dead pompous old Englishman. I rebelled by not reading a word of it. In the classic American tradition, I formed a vitriolic opinion of something foreign based on a complete and utter lack of evidence.

When I lived in Portsmouth, where Dickens was born, I used to gleefully get drunk and go piss on his house.

But now, here I am actually reading Dickens. And I find myself shocked, dismayed and pained to discover that I really like it. This throws my world off its axis. I like Dickens. What the hell is going on? I may need to re-evaluate all things in my life. Does the desk I'm sitting at even exist?

Clearly, Christmas is having a very strange effect on me. Or, perhaps it is simply that, as Fflur says, I am old.

(a) Apologies, my friends in the Home Nations, for using an American term here but I continue to struggle in certain academic definitions. I'm still not sure how to refer to a single set of lectures and seminars that one attends as part of his or her degree programme -- "module"?

(b) Can you believe that?! The girl doesn't know the lyrics to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!" I feel that the British state has failed her somehow. Is it any wonder the children in this country are feral?


Anonymous said...

Lovely post - starting to feel a tad Christmassy myself(had my first mince-pie today)


Anonymous said...

I can't think of the word for those module-class-thingys either, which is weird because I've dome bloody dozens of them. I think 'class' is fine. Like how we would use 'evening class'. Also 'course' would do.

OOH BATH! I am out and about for lunch between 1 and 2 tomorrow so I will be keeping a WEE BEADY EYE out for you guys!

Also: The thing you must read next, if you haven't already, is a big bunch of Sherlock Holmes short stories. Don't start with a novel, it'll bore the arse off you, but the short stories are so very rich and lovely and wordy and brilliant. I heart Conan Doyle! I think I probably have some around here.

Anonymous said...

A Christmas Carol is probably one of my favourite books. Dickens can be a bit hard-going at times, but that book is just a pleasure.