The Meaning of Christmas

It’s the night before Christmas, and I should be out at the pub enjoying a few pints of ale, a handful of mince pies and the usual classic songs that get played to the point of insanity. We all know them – the Christmas classics that we hear in homely pubs, at wishful office parties and during frisky family affairs. However, the closest I have come to feeling that sickly nostalgia is an auto-curated iTunes playlist. As far back as I can remember, Slade has always been on somewhere at this time of year. Wham! have made us horny. And Mariah Carey has been our karaoke go-to. More than this, people have always gathered, flocked, convened and congregated at this time. And so here I am, the night before Christmas, bashing out some lines on what this holiday means, instead of being at the pub, enjoying a few pints of ale, a handful of mince pieces and crying about what happened last Christmas.

The short answer to the meaning of Christmas is that it is about the coming of light in darkness.

The long answer will require a little more examination and my favourite carol. ‘In the bleak midwinter’ is not only a lovely melody by Gustav Holst, it is also an evocative text by Christina Rossetti. In my mind, it evokes exactly what it says on the tin – the bleak midwinter, a cold harsh season where nothing grows and our souls lay desolate. Now, it has been a number of years that global warming has put paid to any chance of snow on Christmas Day and so we don’t really have a truly bleak midwinter in England anymore, like the time the Thames froze in 1683.

Bleak, however, can refer to more than just penetrating cold. And yes, you’ve guessed it – the events of this year can certainly be described as bleak. In January, I gave my class the essay question ‘Why, in your opinion, will 2020 be the best year yet?” While not everyone argued for the subject, apart from personal reasons of internships and other trivial student triumphs, none predicted this act of God. Despite inner feelings of doom and gloom, I generally don’t like to join those who run around shouting ‘the end is nigh’ and consequently don’t enjoy what precious time we might have left. But it is obvious even to those without 20/20 vision that this year has been a puncher.

As a little Christmas treat, my girlfriend and I went for a stroll to the Rue Mouffetard for crêpes and cidre. This street, as some of you may know, is usually heaving, and Christmas especially must bring in a surge of business. But chatting to the dejected owner of the crêperie, while her husband sulked in a doorway opposite and lit a cigarette, showed that her livelihood is in the balance. She was trying for the sake of her daughters, one of them at university and the other getting ready to go, full of life. Trying for what, I asked. Trying to keep it together, to put on a brave face, to make this Christmas period feel like something special.

A third wave, and subsequent restrictions, will probably wipe out small business like this. And their children’s dreams with it.

What can you say to someone who is looking down the end of a financial barrel? Someone who has seen a thriving, local business, their own, disappear? Someone who has to save face in front of their own children? In a moment of inspired zeal, I said that while Christmas might be the darkest period of the year, it represents the coming of Christ. Her husband was looking over at us and if he’d heard this religious talk, he might have taken me for an evangelical. I can reassure you, dear Reader, that I am no evangelical – it just pains me to see distress. In any case, out of sympathy, curiosity, or worse, she agreed with me. I continued, slightly changing tack – Christ is an allegory – his birth is not an immediate lifting of our sorrows – his advent reminds us that the longest night is over – from now on, we look forward to longer days, warmer moments and the rising of sap.

It’s not up to me to say if this comforted her or not, though I daresay that the only thing that could really put a smile on such a person’s face in this misery would be to pull out a blank cheque and be on your way. There are moments, in our personal lives and on the grand scale, that come and test our resilience – and talking to this small business owner was revealing, after a lockdown where all is internet and roses.

I’m not talking about ingenuity, resourcefulness, guile, perseverance or any of those admirable human qualities, but about resilience, as per the Latin etymology, the ability to jump back. You fall, you rise. You get knocked down, you get up again. You crumble, you rebuild. What links both these verbs in each sentence is resilience. At this moment, the pandemic is testing our ability to push on – mental health problems, burnout, exhaustion, domestic violence, financial precarity, joblessness, societal flare ups, depression and the whole gamut of the dark side of humanity.

Yet, no matter how dark it gets, the nights are getting shorter and happier days will come again.

This year has also seen us get to know other people even more and with more intimacy than we might usually have appreciated. Our friends, partners, pets and others – we have been stuck with them in a small space, observing our fellow tent-buddies and, more often than not, noticing their more reprehensible traits. The Big Other is as ugly as ourselves, and you have to remember that were it not for all this time and space on our hands, such less than admirable qualities would not have been so visible. All that energy, personal energy, that would have been lost dancing to those Christmas classics, or shared around crowded bars, or merely dissipated into an office space, has found no such outlet. It has remained, like us, inside, festering like the bins that you’re convinced it’s the Other’s turn to take out.

I don’t want to get preachy here, but we must be gentle when it comes to the flaws of others. Why? Because they didn’t start this pandemic; they didn’t force you to work from home; and they have as little control as you do when it comes to finding a solution. It’s the longest night too for others and so too will warmer days come for them. And if this just a little too much of a lesson for you, just think of this as my own little ‘note to self’ and move on to the final paragraph.

A friend said to me on the phone just recently that Christmas should be about those who are present, rather than the occasion, justly because there are many that can’t be there. And this year, no doubt, there are many more than usual we won’t be able to pull a Christmas cracker with. I have a particular thought, therefore, for any who have lost loved ones – whenever this loss might have made itself known with the usual surprising brutality. Compared with picture perfect scenes from a DFS advert or a Richard Curtis movie, that weird feeling of it simply being just as bad as any other day you miss your brother, partner or anyone who has passed, seems wrong, an extra layer of guilt to the preexisting excess.

The reality is that it’s the darkest it will be outside and those you love are still missed. But, as we have said, it might be the darkest outside, but the days are getting shorter and the allegorical birth of a saviour is, well, exactly that: so long as we breathe, we shall hope.

Happy Christmas to you all.

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