Happiness is a cloying sweetness

WATCH out, here comes Scrooge!

We are constantly told that Christmas is the “happiest time” with the subtext that this happiness comes from spending as much money as possible, eating as many sweet things as possible and drinking as much as possible.

Some years ago we gave in to pressure and agreed to go with my daughter and her family to Disneyland in Los Angeles. This is the ORIGINAL theme park, and the only one that was designed by Walt Disney. It is, according to the publicity blurbs, “the place where dreams come true” and “the happiest place on earth.”

Now, nothing can possibly live up to that billing. We had an enjoyable day, on the “if you’ve got to do this, make the best of it” principle. We thought some of the rides were worth the queues, the parade is colourful fun and the evening fireworks are genuinely spectacular. It is VERY expensive (not counting the cost of two nights in a nearby hotel, and the petrol up and down to Sacramento, nearly 500 miles north of LA).

In terms of happiness, we had just as good a time (at the expense merely of a couple of gallons of diesel) taking them all down to Kimmeridge when they came over last Christmas. They spent the day playing in the rockpools, gathering tiny fossils and interesting stones, chasing the puppy in and out of the water and eating avidly in the crisp cold air. “Can we go to the fossil beach again?” was the refrain for the rest of their stay.

Your “Happy Christmas” this year could include winning “a visit to your own home from the Coca‑Cola Christmas Truck with a special delivery of Christmas goodies!” Even if you don’t win your own personal visit, you may catch it on its 2015 tour which includes several West Country stops.

Last year, the Coca-Cola truck made 46 stops across the UK, the tour website attracted nearly two million hits and there were 50,000 “official customer photos.” Towns roll out the red carpet for the bright red truck where “fans” can “get up close and personal with the famous vehicle … take pictures with the truck as it lights up and experience a snowy winter wonderland setting “ (plus a free drink of course). One councillor said the visit would be “good for businesses as well as creating a festive, family atmosphere for visitors.”

It’s interesting timing, coinciding with a call from the Commons Health Committee for a tax on sugary drinks as part of a “bold and urgent” set of measures to tackle child obesity in England. The committee says there is “compelling evidence” a tax would reduce consumption.

Food industry representatives say a new tax would be “unfair” on consumers (comprehensively missing the point and demonstrating their lack of concern for children’s health). The Food and Drink Federation spokesman refers to “hard-pressed consumers” who would have to pay significantly more “for the products they love.”

The Commons committee, chaired by MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who is a GP, quotes figures showing that one-fifth of children start primary school overweight or obese, rising to a third by the time they leave. I have misgivings how “obesity” is measured, since my slender, strong and muscly six year old grand-daughter was described as obese on the unreliable BMI basis (remember Jonny Wilkinson?), but you do know what they mean. You only have to look around you in town centres and shopping malls.

The committee wants a crackdown on price promotions of unhealthy foods, tougher controls on marketing, including the use of cartoon characters to promote unhealthy food, a ban on advertising unhealthy foods on television before 9pm, clearer labelling of products showing sugar content in teaspoons and a drive to force the industry to reduce sugar in food and drink as has happened with salt

Basically, the message is that too much refined sugar is bad for us, whether it is the damage to our teeth or  the increasing number of people suffering from type-2 diabetes or obesity.

Government advice is that no more than 5 per cent of daily calories should come from sugar – about 1 oz/25 grammes, or six or seven teaspoons, for an adult of normal weight. According to the pressure group Action On Sugar, a typical can of fizzy drink contains about nine teaspoons of sugar. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are not the worst offenders, coming in at nine teaspoons per 330ml serving, compared with Old Jamaica ginger beer with the equivalent of 13 teaspoons and several orange or lemon fizzy drinks with 12 teaspoons. Coca-Cola has produced a new lower sugar drink which has one-third less calories, but this is still equivalent to about four teaspoons.

Many local councils pay lip service to the idea of promoting healthy eating and healthy living. It is hard to see how they square this message with their fulsome welcome for the Coca-Cola truck with its “winter wonderland” of sugary drinks.

You won’t find happiness or health in a can of fizzy drink or an advertisers jingle.

I love Christmas – the music, the traditions, the Christmas tree with decorations gathered on our travels, Christmas stockings and presents, my mother’s Christmas pudding recipe, the faces of my grandchildren as they open their presents. But I don’t expect everything to be perfect – and the more you expect perfection and several days of unalloyed bliss with family and friends, the more doomed you are to disappointment (which is why so many people are so grumpy about Christmas!)

Christmas offers a message of hope in a dark and frightened world – it isn’t a saccharine promise of happiness.

Fanny Charles