Bill Owens, Reagan on TV via
Denise Scott Brown recalls her childhood bemusement at being asked to make Christmas cards depicting snowy scenes of Surrey in the summer of colonial South Africa. The idealized cultural image, dislocated and juxtaposed by Imperialism: Downs against veldt; winter against summer; Europe against Africa.
But equally, snowy Christmas card scenes look just as alien when you’re actually in Surrey. Christmas images are not paintings depicting atmospheric conditions, temperature or geography. They are images that describe a mythical place that never existed anywhere.
Christmas’ winter wonderland is an image of nature fed through the filter thousands of years of culture – replayed though literature, movies, music, images in a feedback loop. It’s a myth that’s been overwritten to the point of illegibility: from obscured pagan origins, through Christianisation, then by varied secular interests (St. Nick as Coca Cola trademark; John Lennon’s hippy-dom). It squirts out the other end a collection of half broken, half forgotten sentiments distilled into super strength imagery. Christmas’ iconography is a super narrative that refers only to itself: each iteration a way of recalling the last, as George Michael so pertinently observed (though perhaps because of its impossible nostalgia, our hearts will be broken every year).
It’s this fractured, dreamlike scenography that we assemble each year with plasticky, shiny, and papery stuff – a way of physically manifesting a cultural concept as an ephemeral landscape, an imaginary space laid over our real environments.
It’s an utterly unnatural simulatation of a memory of nature. The sparkle of LED lights might recall a starry pagan sky and prayers for the suns return. Frost is rendered as glowing fiber optic tips of artificial fir trees. We string tinsel from ceiling tiles as though wintry vines were creeping through our open plan offices. We spray plasticized versions of snow onto windows as applied meteorology.
We watch cranes lifting trees onto the pediments of neo-Classical buildings as though the city might become a forest. German markets appear overnight like hallucinations in unlikely situations (this years favorite: in Chicago at Mies’ Federal Plaza)
The electro-pseudo-winter is incredible in its intricacy and depth. But it’s also at odds with what’s happening to ‘real’ winter.
Climate change science shows winter shrinking. Many European plants flower a week earlier than in the 1950s and lose their leaves 5 days later. Birds and frogs breed earlier. The Northern Hemisphere spring ice thaw begins 9 days earlier than150 years ago. The autumn freeze typically starts 10 days later. North of forty degrees north latitude, the growing season for vegetation has increased by several days. The artic is becoming greener and might be ice-free during summer by 2060. Father Christmas might think about trading in his sled for a 4×4.
Ski Dubai, UAE
Perhaps these statistics explain why we artificially stretch the festive season. It bleeds across the calendar like an icy inkblot. Maybe it’s because there are fewer real snowflakes that we feel the need to manufacture decorative ones, why Harrods’ Christmas shop opens in August and mince pies are on the shelves in September. Perhaps it’s guilt and fear made palpable through tinsel and fiber optics – an attempt to salve a loss that we can’t quite yet comprehend. Or perhaps it’s preparation for a future where winter simply doesn’t occur naturally anymore.
Super computers run digital simulations of climate change, crunching equations that calculate potential futures. What these winters will look like is probably not part of these simulations. But perhaps our super-scaled festive installations will escape their manmade habitats and begin to fill the voids of winter-depleted landscapes. Perhaps we will see forests of white fiber optic trees planted over the slopes of Bavarian mountains, colour-cycling through warm nights. Or perhaps sparkling neon snowflakes will be suspended in flocks over a scorched North Pole. Maybe armies of set-dressers will squirt spray-on-snow over pine needles. Perhaps these installations will become an artificial Narnia – permanent monuments to a vanished season.