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
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…
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.