As a PhD researcher studying how people experience music in everyday life, I constantly find myself thinking about taste. In many ways, taste is a lens through which we see the world; it dictates the stuff we buy, the things we do for fun and the way we represent ourselves. It influences the music we listen to, the television we watch, the clothes we wear and the food in our fridges. In other words, taste determines the cultural wallpaper of our lives.
Since the start of the festive season, I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between taste and Christmas. It all started when my boyfriend was invited to an event, for which he was instructed to wear a Christmas jumper. This was not a casual suggestion, it was a compulsory dress code. In case you were wondering, the event was a Christmas jumper competition – a prize was to be given to the person with the ‘best’ (read ‘most obnoxious’) Christmas jumper.
As it happens, he didn’t own a Christmas jumper – specifically, because he doesn’t like them. In this respect we see eye to eye. When we see a Christmas jumper, we don’t see festive Christmas merriment, we just see a really ugly jumper. Call us churlish or boring or whatever … we just don’t like Christmas jumpers. However, this occasion meant we had to do the unthinkable: we had to go into town and choose a Christmas jumper.
‘But they’re so ugly!’ I moaned, after he broke the unfortunate news.
‘Yes.’ He answered. ‘But that’s the point, isn’t it? Everyone knows they’re ugly. They’re meant to be ironic.’
After thinking it through, I conceded that he was right. At no other time of year would a reasonable individual be expected to wear a garish, brightly-coloured jumper with a festive greeting knitted on the front. Generally, when people wear a Christmas jumper, they do so knowingly. They aren’t saying that they are partial to kitsch knitwear and cartoon snowmen. Instead, they seem to be saying ‘I know this looks naff, and that’s what makes it cool.’ In this sense, wearing a Christmas jumper is a statement about taste. By wearing something so ostentatiously uncool, you are effectively showing that you understand how taste works. I would argue that, through this ironic display of awareness, the wearer gains cultural capital – hipster capital, if you will.
Christmas jumpers are, in fact, a very new phenomenon. Somehow though, through some bizarre cultural shift (probably generated by the clothing industry), they have become a tradition, albeit one that is entirely fabricated. Nowadays, people talk about Christmas jumpers as though they are a wholesome festive ritual, like the Queen’s speech, Christmas crackers and ‘Fairytale of New York’. We seem to have forgotten that they only became popular around five years ago.
Christmas jumpers are a symptom of the naff Christmas aesthetic which has become ubiquitous (at least in the UK). Christmas is increasingly considered to be the holiday that taste forgot, a joyful celebration of the unashamedly tacky (fake reindeer antlers), the fabulously glitzy (tinsel, anyone?) and the gloriously naff (Kylie Minogue in a Santa dress on TOTP2). Don’t get me wrong, I love this type of thing. But everyone has boundaries, and I draw the line at Christmas jumpers.
The strange thing about this ironic naffness is how uncharacteristically British it all is. British people are notoriously curmudgeonly; we don’t exactly go in for brash visual display. We can also be pretty snobbish about things like taste, as Grayson Perry demonstrated in his award-winning 2012 documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste, which explored how ideas about taste intersect with deeply ingrained notions of identity and social class. We tend to infer meanings about people according to their taste (which, of course, we view through the prism of our own taste). Often these judgements relate to class, which remains a stereotypically British concern; distinctions of class are often fraught and class prejudice is still alive and well in the UK.
Because of this prejudice, people can be intensely guarded about their tastes. During my PhD and undergraduate degree, I have interviewed many people about music, and have found that people consider music to be deeply personal; often you need to build a relationship with people before they will share their musical tastes with you. This makes complete sense – after all, people are so often ridiculed for their musical tastes, and what could be worse than being accused of having bad taste?
For some reason, this anxiety about taste seems to go out the window at Christmas. Of course, there are always those who opt for a tasteful Christmas, with muted decorations, a stylishly themed Christmas tree and inoffensive carols playing in the background – but really, where’s the fun in that?
So what does all this tackiness mean, within a culture that places such importance on good taste? Of course, you could argue that it’s all ironic (as I suggested earlier), but that doesn’t really seem to cover it; after all, deep down, most of us actually really enjoy the brash, glitzy Christmas aesthetic.
Instead, I would argue that Christmas represents a kind of carnivalesque celebration which, like many festivals, provides a welcome break from social convention. For one month, we are invited to throw off the shackles of good taste, listen to cheesy music and decorate our homes with kitsch plastic ornaments. In this sense, Christmas offers an opportunity to subvert the boundaries of taste, whilst conveniently offering corporations the opportunity to flog endless Christmas tat. Whether you like it or not, this is what modern Christmas is all about. You might as well make the best of it, don the plastic reindeer antlers and dance to Slade – after all, it’s just a matter of taste.