What’s Write with Christmas?

This year many writers I know have blogged comments on how they are not, really not, looking forward to Christmas. Often, it’s deeply personal: a tragedy struck them at Christmas, and the season has become one of awakening unbearable memories. And they sound apologetic, or resentful, or both: but to feel that way is reasonable, and sad. And ‘stuff happens …’ So, Christmas has become huge, year on year there seems to be more of everything – food, fun, feasting, drinking, partying, carols and travel and stress … and greater expectation … But there’s other reasons to find ‘Christmas’ a unbearable prospect, and those lie within our grasp …

My book The Labyrinth Year

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

includes a Carol service scene where I’ve  tried to catch the wonder and magic seen though the eyes of a child … but that wonder and magic are on the back burner this year: behind the busyness and the buying, and certainly behind the mood of a society in political uncertainty… Many of us may feel, as Yeats said ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’.

Does our Christmas need a centre?

An article I read recently, advertising a fundraising carol service, quoted one of the organisers explaining that it’s necessary to reassure people who might buy tickets that, although this is a kind of Carol service, it’ll be “kind of festive” but “not particularly religious”.

And here’s the thing: ‘Christmas’, historically, has always been a season feasting and fun, though its origins come from the Bible story of the birth of Jesus. It celebrated something: it was the champagne and congratulation cards for a birth. Throughout history in the West, the story has probably strayed far from how the event actually was – adding in the Innkeeper, his wife, the donkey, and other elements (those tea towel head-dresses for example), familiar to anyone who’s had to do with a school ‘Nativity Play’. This ‘religious bit’, once central, continued to give it ‘meaning’, a reason to exist, a reason to celebrate, a birthday – makes sense …

What’s wrong with the story?

So what is the threat in keeping up awareness of the origins of Christmas by telling the story which lies behind the Festival? It’s a wonderful and mysterious story, full of the nearest thing to magic, with its angel choir and a moving Star leading that camel train of astronomers across the desert. To describe the story as ‘religious’, as a contrast to being “light-hearted,” and assure them that there will be “nothing from the Bible” in this carol concert (held in a Cathedral) seems to clearly demonstrate that there is a terrible fear of the Bible, and its ability to take the shine out of Christmas, and make us miserable. Heaven forbid, we may find that book attractive, full of amazing stories of the ancient Middle East as it is. And then where will we be? In chapel, on our knees, ignoring the feast?

I’d suggest that celebrating the basis of a faith is not the same as being ‘religious’: and I’d agree that in today’s parlance, the word drips with gloomy and negative connotations, and with disapproval of fun and celebration. But what the Puritans did to ban Christmas was long ago. The whole idea of feasting and fun at Christmas implies the opposite: celebrations and joy in keeping the feast along with telling the story is perfectly fine. However, apologies have been made, and assurances that there won’t be any religion. 

So Christmas is okay without the story?

The well known carols usually find their inspiration and context in the story – or myth – or fact – of the birth of Jesus. In the start of a life on which the so-called religion of Christianity is based. And there is no real way around this – however much the desired audience dislike the awkward origins of our midwinter celebrations… Having dismissed the very grounds of Christmas, we still want a celebration of carols?  

Would it not be more honest to restrict all the readings by the celebrity readers (invited to “make it interesting”)  entirely to secular writing, and the singers to well-known popular songs? This way the event would neither  offend the secular attendees, nor create a need to ensure that anything ‘serious’ is counterbalanced, with an ending that is upbeat, flippant and not religious (in other words nothing to do with the Bible. So that everyone is sent home happy.

A festival without a centre, then?

The message of the article promoting the Macmillan fundraiser carol service is tragically interesting. It tells us by implication that “religion” – believing in the central Christmas message of God becoming ‘incarnate’ as a human being in order to live out the pattern of a generous and unselfish life, to ‘bring light in darkness’ – is sad, downbeat and best avoided. ‘Happiness’ is evidently  found by rejecting the Christmas message, and embracing instead the satisfaction of our own appetites and emotional excitement. If this is so, then why Christmas in the first place, and certainly why now? What can be ‘rescued’ by the many people who are for one reason or another, not in the mood for, not in the state of health for, just ‘not  feeling Christmassy’? What makes this so sad is that in times of suffering, loss, or loneliness there is actually nowhere to turn at Christmas. Christmas underlines what, materially, we don’t have. What, materially, we’re expected to have. Even non-materially – the expected mythical ‘family’ or ‘love’ … Christmas without the religious bits becomes merely a time to do more than we have energy for in the darkest, dampest, coldest time of year, to travel in terrible weather, to overeat and to overspend – and not much else. A time maybe to be unwillingly alone. As, on the last day – ‘Christmas Day’ – everyone (seemingly) is to shut themselves  away in tight little family groups, keeping out the neighbours, the world at large, and the many people who ‘have to work’ so that the infrastructure and the emergency services keep going…

What’s left?

The outside … No surprise that many people have reasons to feel ‘unChristmassy’: rough sleepers, sick people, anyone who doesn’t have a partner, or a family, or is a ‘migrant’ awaiting deportation … And what’s important seems to be that it’s necessary to become a celebrity in order to be interesting – think of those carol service readers, who must be celebrities to help pull in an audience…

No surprise really that many people have a reason to feel left out of all this …

Strange thing is that the so-called religious people would say that they are celebrating the greatest celebrity of  them all. In a dark world and political uncertainty the message of light coming where there is darkness is amazing. The “religious side” is a message of hope – for anyone and everyone, which doesn’t depend on wealth, status, state of mind, or unending pleasure … while it’s still about The true light, which gives light to everyone, … coming into the world.

 

Happy Christmas from Mari Howard …

So, maybe the writer is ‘feeling Christmassy’ – looking forward to spending family time xmas choc cakeand thinking img_2354about the blessing of Christmas … There’s now a Christmas extract for you to read, from my novel The Labyrinth Year, on the Hodge Publishing website.  And here are a few Christmassy photos from my album … and I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year … in Syria, and for all of us … Continue reading

Is the writer feeling Christmassy?

So, is the writer feeling Christmassy? 

Tree of Christmassy words, (made with Tagul software)
Tree of Christmassy words, (made with Tagul software)

You know that Christmassy feeling …?

A few days ago, four of us ALLi writers went along to the local TV studio to record Christmas stories. We did the festive thing properly in Santa hats, and dressed suitably in red and green… Happy Christmas! we exclaimed to the camera which acted as our audience.

Were we feeling Christmassy?  

The Four of us writers, in Christmas mood on the sofa!
The Four of us writers, in Christmas mood on the sofa!

Wide-eyed, breathless, excited?  Our stories had a lot of real life in them, plenty of the downside of Christmas amongst the twinkling lights and candles of promise. The uppity clever child in Santa’s grotto, the kind pregnant young woman visiting her lonely elderly neighbour, the young mum and dad taking their five-year-old to her first Carol service, the first-time mother with depression re-bonding with her baby. Each wobbly scenario came to a happy ending. And the whole was brought together with a reading of The Night before Christmas.

Today, a performance poet I know on Facebook put up a piece he wrote recently for Doctors under Fire Doctors under Fire. This captures the mood of Christmas 2016 for me. (See end of the blog for the poem …) Writing Happy Christmas in 80+ cards, while the mess our world is in occupies my mind several times a day, seemed both vapid and pointless – yet I did it. We can’t do otherwise – activities with our friends and family, even sending and receiving cards, provide happy intervals in the crazy busy lives we have to lead.

But what are we up to celebrating the festival? Raised in the few decades of relative peace, at least in our corner of the world, childhood Christmas was magical. Lucky enough to have an integrated traditional/religious Christmas, I relished all of it: the carols, the magic of the Nativity and the magic of the lighted tree, (traditionally bought with my father on Christmas eve and decorated to the music of the carols from King’s, Cambridge). The traditional food back then included treats we never ate at any other time of year. I wonder about today’s kids, sophisticated by ‘sexting’ and social media, exposed to explicit news stories of child abuse and terrible wars.

It’s basically a very dark world as we approach Christmas. The dark of the season, and the more sinister dark of modern warfare, killing and maiming civilians in body, mind, and spirit. The terrible irony that we are ‘taxpayers’, whose taxes help fund the weaponry and whose gift aided contributions are necessary to support aid workers. Brave and compassionate, these people from MSF, Doctors under Fire, and more, toil in dangerous circumstances to make some difference to the meaningless suffering. Whether they believe it or not, their lives follow the life and spirit of that baby whose birth Christmas celebrates. Christmas carols, cake, turkey, presents and Santa flag up the irony.

The writer has no answers. Except to make Christmas celebration as simple and enjoyable time as we can, a haven in the contentious noise. And to hopefully witness to the light which shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it.

Horrified by events in Aleppo – barbarity and complicity on a major scale. Here’s that poem, by performance poet Paul Canon Harris who was asked to write something last week to publicise the People’s Convoy that sets off on Saturday with paediatric medical supplies for Aleppo. “Wonderful bunch of doctors and intrepid explorers of all faiths and none.”  The People’s Convoy leaves from Chelsea & Westminster hospital 11am Saturday.

Lament for Aleppo (my thanks to the writer for permission)

O children of Aleppo how still we see thee lie
Chilled by fear, laid out in death as bombs rain from the sky.

Omran sits motionless, caked with blood and dust,
shocked to his core,
haunted eyes obscene on a little boy
who’s known nothing in his life but war.

Bana aged seven smiles for the camera,
she tweets for peace,
bizarrely connected by social media
yet beyond her rescuers’ reach.

Mothers of Aleppo, no dreamless sleep for you
as your hearts shake before buildings quake.
You see through shattered windows
the eerie glow of phosphorous and worse.

Nowhere’s safe nor sound;
you hide your children underground,
in basements hoping this will save
them from a place in an unmarked grave.

O children of Aleppo how still we see thee lie
Chilled by fear, laid out in death as bombs rain from the sky.

Once a place of culture and wealth for those of noble birth
now a gigantic graveyard, least inhabitable place on earth.
Silk Road city you no longer count your dead,
existence hanging by a fragile slender thread.

Battered and besieged, mosques and markets
reduced to rubble, stained with blood.
Your ring of hills and ancient citadel
look down upon a living hell.

Doctors working under fire do the best they can
lacking basics, operate without anaesthetics,
risking death to care for their fellow “man”,
irrespective of class, creed or clan.

The watching world ignores your desperate cry:
“For long we dreamed that people would come to help us.
No-one is coming is the harsh reality,
we will die here, bereft of humanity.”

O children of Aleppo how still we see thee lie
Chilled by fear, laid out in death as bombs rain from the sky.

Paul Canon Harris Dec.2016 Copyright: Doctors Under Fire