All of this is holy.
Merry Merry, everyone.
Theory of mind is a wonderful thing. I try to make room in mine for people who dislike Christmas.
There are plenty of decent reasons why a sane person might not freak out at the first jingle of artificial sleigh bells on the radio in mid-November. Perhaps you have a contraindicative religious faith or a tragic tinsel allergy. Perhaps it’s the anniversary of when your parents abandoned you in a shopping centre Santa’s Grotto, leaving you to be raised by drunk elves who made you dance round a tree for money. Or maybe the unquiet ghosts of your past, present and future keep showing up to shame-bomb you with homilies about social justice, although for some of us thay’s just a normal day on Twitter.
But if you dislike Christmas for no reason at all, you might be one of those poor people who has confused being serious with being grown up.
My dad was the first person to really teach me the difference. He was an embarrassingly earnest person. That’s where I get it. He loved to sing, and always told us how sad it made him that he didn’t get to be in the chorus when his school did Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime, the lyrics being a bit too explicitly New Testamental for an unnamed authority figure in the 1950s. A hardly-practicing Jew, dad loved Christmas with the pure and scrumptious enthusiasm grown adults reserve for things they weren’t allowed to do when they were little.
That’s why, at two forty-five on Christmas Eve, with the light already stealing away outside the kitchen windows, I’m whirling around with a dishcloth trying to get everything clean-ish, and the tea made, and the door cracked to let in a breeze in time for the big moment:
Carols from Kings’ College on Radio 4.
Every year, at 3PM precisely, an unaccompanied child soloist launches into the difficult first verse of Once In Royal David’s City. This happens live, as tens of thousands of people in kitchens all over the country hold their breath as if that would help this year’s terrified junior chorister hold the high notes. This year there was a slight wobble on the second line, but the kid turned it around in time, which I take as a good omen. It’s one of our equivalents of Punxsutawney Phil.
If anyone from an overtly religious culture happened to be watching me on the 24th of December, they might well think I had a relationship with Jesus Christ and his extended family. I don’t. John Stewart could have been describing my upbringing when he told his fans: ‘I’m Jewish and my wife is Catholic, so we’re raising our kids to be sad.’
We were also raised in a country and a culture where deep appreciation for ritual is grounded by a respectful suspicion of God in all his guises. In the U.K these days, almost everyone of every faith and none does Christmas. The British are particularly good at Christmas, just like we’re particularly good at anything where earnestness is officially encouraged. Soak it in ceremony and lubricate it with booze and we might let ourselves have a little sincerity as a treat. Strict religious observance is strictly optional.
But the older, more important, general idea is that one day, a long time ago, something completely brilliant happened, and if we hang on through the winter, something absolutely fantastic might happen again.
Now that, I do believe. I think that’s sacred all by itself. Like the feeling you get in front of a campfire against a huge black sky that goes on forever. It doesn’t stop being numinous just because you know how it’s done.
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I’ve written before about how most British children don’t learn a line of Imperial history in school. What we do learn, though - what every British adult I’ve ever met spent at least a couple of years having to memorise- is the Reformation. The century and a half of bloody internicene religious wars that had successive royal fanatics burning and beheading each other while the country went to ruin. We learn that Elizabeth the First was a great queen because she did not seek to ‘make windows into men’s souls’- in other words, she let people believe whatever they wanted as long as they kept it to themselves. We learn that Oliver Cromwell, by contrast, was such a Christian extremist that he banned Christmas, so no wonder they brought the monarchy back, and six centuries later even the most ardent anti-royalist is duty bound to have the sort of Christmas Cromwell would try to outlaw.
When I was growing up, Christianity was more of an aesthetic than an actual faith people actually had. It was ambiently around, yes, but it was Anglicanism- which has always treated the fact of God as rather embarrassing. Yes, there’s this chap who technically is judging you, you know how he gets, and it’s all rather unpleasant, so best just sing the nice songs and have a mince pie. Even the function of judging the mortal souls of human children is best delegated to Santa. I went to school in towns where ancient churches were where you went to leave fruit and roots and giant corn dollies at the altar for Harvest Festival. The May Day fair with the Maypole dance and crowning of the Queen was in the Church car-park when I was six. And it’s where you went in mid-December to listen to carols and sing songs that were heavy on the sacred holly berries and blood and snow. Go on and look up the lyrics to the Sans Day Carol. That, friends, is music to sacrifice chickens to.
It didn’t occur to me until more or less this week, while I was bouncing about excitedly playing Christmas carols to the foreigner I married, that none of this is really very Christian. I’m used to Christmas not really being about Jesus, but I’m used to Christianity not being about Jesus either. It’s still holy. It all is.
One year, when I was still at school, the choir put on the Messiah, and there were parts for some of the parents and teachers, so dad finally got to sing And The Glory Of The Lord Shall Be Revealed. And now, every year in December, I listen to the whole thing- and yes, Handel’s Messiah is technically about the birth of the ancient Palestinian prophet Yeshua ben Yoseph, in the same way that Jane Eyre is technically about a man who marries the nanny. In the same way that the Starry Night is technically a picture of a field in France.
The British make some of the most intuitive critics of art and music, and I think that’s partly because the passion of it all frightens us so badly. If we can make it nameable and knowable then it might, perhaps, be possible to survive something as fucking sublime as the Song of Wandering Aengus, or the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night. I studied literature at a university older than many nations and the one thing we were never asked was- how does this make you feel?
Because the answer is dangerous. The answer is sacred.
Art does this, just like ritual does. It makes us feel, in a less timebound way, something of what everyone else who came to this work has felt or has longed to feel. To listen to Handel’s Messiah, like I’m doing tonight, is to know for a moment what it is to be racked with rejoicing at how glorious the world might be. And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all flesh shall see it together.
These things render ordinary life strange and holy. They are prayer transcending faith. They let us remember who we are. I’m the kid of someone who loved a particular piece of music, and Christmas has been sadder in the eight years since he died, and it always will be, and that’s okay. I’m someone who makes sure the kitchen is done in time to hope a stranger’s child hits the hard high notes on a very old song, and that’s holy, just like the John Lewis Christmas advert is holy and the long walk in the cold is holy and the rummage through the Quality Street tin is holy and putting up the tree is holy and peeling potatoes is holy and calling your far-away relatives is holy and the song about the socially ostracised reindeer is holy, and all of it is optional, and none of it strictly makes sense, and none of it can ever be like it was before we knew how the magic was done and how much it could hurt, but it’s all glorious.
I think so, anyway.
I hope you’ve had a slightly glorious day, especially if you’re isolating or ill this year. It won’t ever be what it was, but it will still be a little bit brilliant.