A “tinsel-covered silver lining”

Safa Dar analyses the spectacle of Oxmas as an intrigued international student

Photo: Flickr

It’s that time of year again: you can start bracing yourself for the onslaught of high-pitched jingles and ‘Christmas special offers’ designed to lure you further into the trappings of capitalist society as soon as you make your way into any shop or department store. The cheerful tunes may well be poison to your ears because you’re neck-deep in an essay crisis and not quite feeling the holiday vibes yet. This was me a year ago, and it’s not too far from where I’m at right now. Oxford has a knack for making it difficult to think beyond the present, but at least this time around, I know there will be the tinsel-covered silver lining that is Oxmas.

While Oxmas may seem like another branch of the broader commercialisation of Christmas, occurring months in advance of the actual thing and adding to an already rampant consumer culture, it is possible to enjoy Oxmas despite being generally critical of the premature holiday fervour because it focuses more on the communal aspects (Oxmas bop, dinner with friends) than consumerist ones. Admittedly, my fascination with Oxmas stems from my status as an outsider and the sense of foreignness in which Christmas is shrouded for me.

Before you start picturing a naive girl gawking at ornament-laden Christmas trees in wide eyed wonder, let me clarify that I was familiar with the cultural paraphernalia surrounding Christmas: I’d watched my favourite characters on TV unwrap presents and cosy up to watch It’s A Wonderful Life with their families (or not, in the case of poor Kevin). I’d read A Christmas Carol when I was a child but hadn’t particularly liked it. Every December, when my aunt, who lives in London, would visit us in Lahore, my younger sister would have a special request: “Can you bring some Christmas crackers with you pleeeeeeeeease?!!”

And so the crackers would come and in the relatively mild winter of Lahore we’d have our share of Christmas fun. Be as that may, I’d never seen it celebrated in the flesh before. The Christmas markets on Broad street may pale in comparison to the German markets my friends spoke about, but they were the only ones I’d ever seen, and the Nutella crepes I bought from there brightened up my otherwise foggy emergency treks to Tesco.

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In the run up to the (free) Oxmas dinner, the weather becomes unbearably cold and grey, and as everyone duly cracks out their worn and well-loved Christmas jumpers (though this could be me romanticising what may well be recent purchases from Primark), I feel a little envious. I decide I want a cosy Christmas jumper too, and roam Cornmarket in search of one. But alas, the only remotely Christmassy jumpers I can find are either overpriced, unbearably gaudy or have Olaf’s face on them.

Week seven rolls around and you can see Christmas trees being carted around college. I’d never seen a real life Christmas tree before, and although I can’t say it was a life changing experience, I can now fully appreciate how horrible my five-foot self would be at decorating one. I was already familiar with the culture of festive gift giving: growing up celebrating Eid in Pakistan, the excitement of waking up to presents, albeit without the dramatic flair of them being positioned under a tree of the pine variety, was a familiar one. But where Eid normally involved visiting family and friends with the intention—for me at least—of coaxing Eidi, gift money, out of them, the markedly less commercialised nature of Eid means that we don’t have an equivalent of ‘Secret Santa’.

Nor, sadly enough, do we have anything like John Lewis Christmas adverts. When I first heard some friends having a heated discussion about their favourite—was ‘Man on the Moon’ trying too hard to be a tearjerker?—I was mildly amused, but when someone actually showed it to me, I must admit my heart melted a little. ‘Buster the Boxer’, in comparison, is looking like a bit of a disappointment and has managed to spark controversy already. Apparently keeping the Santa Claus myth alive for kids is important enough for some parents that they don’t want their children watching the father assembling a trampoline for his daughter.

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Others have gone far enough to compare Buster to Trump, who snatches the opportunity to jump on the trampoline away from the more experienced and deserving young girl. Clearly John Lewis ads are no joking matter. Thankfully, we are told to keep our ‘Secret Santa’ gifts simple, so the ads are as far as my acquaintance with the John Lewis Christmas catalogue goes.

Oxmas bop is, appropriately, a blur. The dining hall is packed full of people on the evening of the Christmas dinner, and although I wasn’t a huge fan of the food itself, the atmosphere — probably fuelled by wine and the relieved realisation that this collective nightmare called Michaelmas would be over soon—was ebullient. The exuberant Oxmas cheer was a welcome light at the end of a long, cold tunnel and its location at the end of term meant that it glossed the gruelling work of Michaelmas in a warm haze, leaving me with echoes of Mariah Carey’s voice singing ‘All I Want For Christmas’ on repeat in my head.

On this note, I pack my bags and fly back home across continents, humming upbeat Christmas tunes and feeling oddly disoriented by their sudden absence when I arrive in Lahore.