All I want for Christmas this year is that Edith should marry Bertie in the final episode of Downton Abbey. She’s certainly the more likeable of the two surviving sisters – sensible, independent, brave, intelligent and she’s had more than her fair share of bad luck. The decent man she’d planned to marry a few series earlier, and whose baby she bore, got himself murdered in Germany and she was left alone to conceal her bastard daughter and publish the magazine he left her. She’s ever so much more likeable than her stuck-up bitch sister Mary, who, undeserving by comparison, won her man in the penultimate episode. I suspect he’ll turn out to be a cad, but we shall never know because this really is the final episode.
I’d also love to see a happy ending for Thomas. He’s the bitter, lonely, gay under-butler at Downton, whose destiny is only to scowl, and scheme and be unhappy. In the equations that rule period drama and generate the marvellously predictable plot lines and dialogue of Downton Abbey, homosexuality means unhappiness. Sadly the cast doesn’t, as far as I can tell, offer Thomas many candidates for companionship, but who knows, Carson may yet ditch his overly dour wife and surprise us all. But it would be churlish, surely, of Julian Fellowes not to sprinkle a little magic dust over the only gay at the Abbey, especially at Christmas. I wouldn’t want to think he’s homophobic.
The fact is that Downton Abbey is as real to me as the Gospels, which is to say they’re both a lot of lovely nonsense. Lovely nonsense is what Christmas is all about, a pause from the laws of physics, biology, and dog-eat-dog. For a day or two, reindeers fly, Santa squirms through a billion chimneys and consumes a billion mince pies, and for a moment we believe that a baby can be fashioned out of a single set of chromosomes. The nostalgia we feel for simple make-believe must, I suppose, occasionally be indulged, though I’m hard pressed to understand why we feel such joy in children’s misplaced hope. Even if we want so much to believe that anything is possible, faith in the supernatural is usually a mistake.
My own disillusion came when I was about five. I couldn’t quite see how Santa could get everything done, and at a children’s party in Newport, Shropshire, in the early 1960s I set him a trap. Safely ensconced on Santa’s lap (the laps of elderly gentlemen were safe in those innocent days) I asked Santa what he planned to bring me for Christmas. I’d sent him a letter up the chimney just a day or two earlier and it seemed reasonable that he’d remember what I’d asked for. I half suspected, of course, that he wouldn’t know and his artful ‘Well, just let me think for a moment. I get so many letters from little boys like you.’ didn’t fool me for a moment. When he admitted to being stumped, my faith in Santa, fairies, leprechauns, and talking animals, was immediately, and forever, lost. I became then the knowing, smug cynic I am today.
Just a few years later I realised there isn’t much difference between Santa, God and little Baby Jesus. Religion may promote more complex ethical ideas, I suppose, and I’m not against a ‘religious sense’. I just can’t bear the words and strictures that the unctuous derive from it. These can be absurdly complex (the sheer technical detail of Roman Catholic dogma, for example, is astonishing, indeed impressive) but it’s still the wrong answer even if to a deeper need. Santa and God, they’re on the same spectrum in my opinion.
But I’m not against Christmas. Make believe, as long as we know what it is, reminds us that the world can be a wonderful place where dreams, both the selfish and the unselfish ones, come true. But I won’t be kneeling in a drafty church for my dose of hope this year, but will watch the last episode of Downton Abbey instead in the warmth and comfort of my mother’s home, with a mince pie and a glass of wine. I can’t wait for the final Christmas Special. I hope Edith gets her man. And Thomas his.
Have a Happy Christmas, all you of great, little and no faith at all. Be good, but don’t be credulous.