I am fed up with the claims that Christmas is cancelled. Nothing could be further from the truth. This year, the toughest of years in our collective memory, Christmas just got a whole lot more real.
I am one of the lucky ones. Although I will not get to spend Christmas Day with some of the people I would have loved to, I will not be alone. I will still be with some of the people I most love in the world and, through the course of Christmas Day, will be able to connect with others through the miracle of zoom.
We will sit down to a feast on Christmas Day, albeit around a smaller table, in a nation and world where too many will go hungry or will eat meagre offerings alone. This year our Christmas meal will be substantially vegan as our youngest son continues to educate us that care for the planet is part of our calling to touch the earth lightly.
This year, however, the mask – seems a strange choice of words in this year of all years – has slipped. The veneer has been stripped back and something of the real is being laid bare. One of my friends often says that ‘God is in the real’. This year, Christmas is very real.
The reality is that Christmas has always been hard and difficult time for many people. Whilst there is the façade that everyone and everything is jolly, it has always been the thinnest of veneers. We have all known many people for whom it is a time of great sadness, a time to remember those we have loved who are no longer with us, separated by death, by distance and by brokenness. The pain seems sharper when it appears that everyone else is too busy having a good time to notice.
This year, as COVID19 continues to bring grief and worry, thousands more will feel that deep sense of loss. This Christmas we will be more aware of our individual and collective lament. Tears and laughter will mingle more.
Far from Christmas being a universal time of happy families, it is also a time when relationships are often under extraordinary strain. Domestic violence spikes and some of the tensions of everyday family life bubble to the surface. This Christmas, amidst all the uncertainty and after the best part of a year of families living on top of one another, we need to be especially aware of the struggles round about us.
Partly because of the work I do and partly because of the people I have been privileged to spend my life alongside, I have been aware from my late teens, that a roomful of presents and a meal around a Christmas table are not the norm for many. This year I have been even more aware, not only of the extraordinary pressures which many are facing but also of so many acts of incredible generosity.
It feels like we are all a bit more aware of the burdens that other are experiencing. Whilst newspaper headlines talk of the ‘Lost Christmas’ (Sunday Mirror), I find myself wondering whether during the sadness and anxiety, we are collectively rediscovering Christmas.
Christmas is much less about presents and more about presence. It is about us being aware of the needs not just of ourselves, and those immediately closest to us, but also about the common good. The common good is not just about things being good for us or even for the majority. It is about it being good for the minority for whom it is habitually bad.
As wise folks have said from the outset of this ghastly pandemic whilst we must be physically distanced to keep one another safe, is it more important than ever that we are socially connected. I wonder, I hope, that this Christmas we might notice our neighbours a bit more, particularly those that are struggling. We will, in all probability, have a little more time to check in that we are all doing OK.
As someone who’s life has been shaped by the Christian Gospel and who seeks, failing almost all the time, to follow Jesus, this ‘stripped back’ Christmas feels a lot more real. It is a reminder of the Holy Family for whom there was no room, and the mother who ended up giving birth in a cattle-shed. It reminds me of the essential workers who left their sheep and visited the new-born child born into the stench of poverty. It is an echo that in the darkest of times, and first century Palestine was a pretty dark place, the light came into the world and the darkness will never put it out. Right now, this is significant stuff.
Yes, Christmas just got a whole lot more real. It has not been cancelled after all.