The meanings of Christmas
So once again Christmas comes round. This is my 52nd, my first in London and a good time to reflect on what this time of year means for me and others.
Christmas is the closest we have to a universal festival in this country, something which, be it in different ways, is marked by most of us and for a day puts the normal rhythm of life on hold. That for me is the first of its charms, as in an age when the tentacles of work, commerce and news stretch into virtually every corner of our waking lives it is good to have a time when we can disconnect from all of that and have some space for something more timeless.
A number of traditions come together to create our modern of festival of Christmas. One part comes from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, held at this time of year, with its powerful imagery (preserved in some of the traditions of the office party) of masters and slaves swapping places for the day. Another part is that of the pagan mid-winter festival, a feast of the winter solstice when the day is at its shortest when animals fattened during the autumn are slaughtered and a brief plenty exists before the depth of the winter sets in.
Amidst these traditions, and linked to both of them, sits the Christian story of Christmas, God , taking on humble human form, born in a stable, worshipped by shepherds and wise men. A story which is the harbinger of peace on earth and good will to all men but also, through the gift of myrrh, of the events of Good Friday.
We also have the more modern myth of the Victorian Christmas captured, classically, in Dickens’ tale of A Christmas Carol. Many of the trappings of modern Christmas date from this period as does the sense of the Christmas spirit which, at least to start with, Ebenezer Scrooge is so reluctant to partake in. While not Dickens’ best writing, it is a story which is becoming increasingly relevant in an age where unscrupulous Capitalism is becoming ever more rampant.
Finally, as with all our festivals, we have blended the folk and religious traditions of Christmas with all the tawdry trappings of modern marketing and commerce, elevating the figure of Santa Claus into the principal character of Christmas and letting ourselves be surrounding with a make believe world of over indulgence and white Christmases like the ones we never had.
Out of these traditions each of us makes their own particular Christmas, which while sharing much in common (less so than in 1970s when childhood Christmas were shaped by a common diet of the Queens Speech, Disney cartoons and Morecambe and Wise), has its own specific characteristics. Christmas was one of the interesting points of negotiation when my wife and I were first married as the rather understated approach of my family Christmas vied with the much more enthusiastic traditions of my wife’s family. 26 years later I think we’ve just about worked out a modus celebrandi.
A festival of plenty and assumed jollity can exaggerate the misery of those excluded from the party by poverty, illness, bereavement, loneliness or other problems. I always remember my stint as a Christmas postman when I would deliver a stack of cards to one house and push nothing more than a gas bill through the letter box of the next. The twitching curtain at that house said a lot to me about the unevenness of human fortune. Those who respond to those who need help at Christmas, whether the volunteers at Crisis at Christmas who entertain their homeless guests or the thousands of NHS and other care workers who staff hospitals and other services over the festive period, deserve a special vote of thanks and highlight the best side of Christmas spirit.
Christmas is also a time for families, one of the few times of the year when we still gather in extended families. It can be a mixed blessing at times, sometimes exaggerating or reopening tensions in family relationships in ways which are both difficult at the time but can also cast a long shadow over relationships through the rest of the year. An unhappy Christmas is doubly so in contrast to the expectations of happiness with which the season is associated.
Family Christmases can also be very special occasions. The first Christmases you have with young children inevitably stick in the memory. I have also especially treasured the last couple of Christmases with my now ageing parents. It has been one of the few times in the year when I have had the time to properly do something for them and those times have had a particular quality, not knowing quite how many future Christmases lie ahead of us.
So while (with my non-conformist roots) I am not a great person for all the paraphernalia of modern Christmas I am looking forward to celebrating it again this year. It is a break from the normal pressure of life and a time to spend with my family. It is a moment to stand outside the present and think of Christmases Past in a way which connects me more vividly than any other time of the year with my former self. A time to count my good fortune and think of others less lucky. Nadolig Llawen – Merry Christmas to you all.