December 2013 Newsletter
Christmas Day at the Palace
The elderly archbishop invited his four sons to join him at home for the Christmas weekend. On Christmas Day morning he was warming himself with his back to a roaring wood fire when his eldest son, a diocesan bishop, joined him. ‘Did you sleep well?’ asked the archbishop. ‘Like a log,’ answered the son, ‘I dreamed of Heaven.’ ‘And what was Heaven like?’ asked his father. ‘Just like home, father,’ came the answer. ‘Wonderful, come and stand by me and get warm’.
Later the second son, an archdeacon, entered the room. ‘Did you sleep well?’ asked the archbishop. ‘Like a log,’ answered the son, ‘I dreamed of Heaven.’ ‘And what was Heaven like?’ asked his father. ‘Just like home, father,’ came the answer. ‘Wonderful, come and stand by me and your brother and get warm’.
A little later the third son, a residentiary canon, joined them. ‘Did you sleep well?’ asked the archbishop. ‘Like a log,’ answered the son, ‘I dreamed of Heaven.’ ‘And what was Heaven like?’ asked his father. ‘Just like home, father,’ came the answer. ‘Wonderful, come and stand by me and your brothers and get warm’
Much later the youngest son, a barrister, tousle headed and showing signs of irritability wandered in. ‘And how well did you sleep?’ asked the archbishop. ‘Dreadfully,’ answered the son, ‘I tossed and turned all night and had this nightmare about Hell’. ‘And what was Hell like?’ asked his father’. ‘Just like home,’ came the reply, ‘you couldn’t get near the fire for parsons!’
Are you fed up with Christmas? I know I am! I am fed up with being bombarded from mid October, with Christmas decorated streets from mid November. I am fed up with the necessity (if I don’t want to become a social and family outcast) of trying to think of interesting and useful presents for grandchildren who already have, not only everything, but presents from last Christmas and the one before that still unopened and stuffed in their cupboards. I am fed up with poring over lists of those I love but also including people I can hardly remember from decades ago when we last saw them but for whom the first Christmas without a card will be like some sort of death knell. I am fed up with picking Christmas cards, not for the message (which is usually so trite as to be vaguely sickening) but just for the picture, hoping that that will convey a message, rather guilty when I send many exactly the same because they seemed the most appropriate, but nonetheless ashamed that I could not be more variable. I am fed up with the first example of text-message-ese – “Xmas”, when those who use it do not know that the ‘X’ is not an ‘X’ but the Greek letter Chi, the first letter in the Greek word for ‘Christ’.
Christmas TV can be really upsetting, although this comment is mainly based on repute, as I don’t think I have switched on a TV on Christmas Day for many, many years. I have, over the years, justified this deluge of Christmas-mania to myself by thinking it brings the Christmas event, maybe the Christmas story and even more maybe the Christmas message to people throughout the world who otherwise have no exposure to the best of the Christian message of love and hope. But that argument has seemed to get a little thin.
Ultimately you cannot get near the warmth of the Christmas fire for profiteers.
But NO! I am not truly deeply fed up with Christmas. Christmas has two functions for me – it reminds me of the Christmas story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ – and it does not matter if the story has been embellished away from the short story in the Bible, so long as the other factor remains true – that this is a message of love and hope – a message of happiness in a time, possibly, of difficulty. There is something obscene in the amount we will spend in the rich West on Christmas fiddle daddle, when tens of thousands will be in grief, starvation and massive deprivation in the Philippines and elsewhere, but there is still the message of hope if we can get down to the simple core of it all.
I shall have two daughters (and their hangers on) staying with us for Christmas this year (we having spent Christmas with them in the last couple of years). The greatest part of this will not be in the opening of presents on Christmas afternoon, but in the time spent by them and my wife, giggling and hooting, over the day or two before, remembering the Christmases when they were tiny and trying to reproduce them – even to the extent of ‘surprise’ stockings for everyone full of inconsequentials (and tangerines to bulk them up) with the most fun presents being the individually wrapped nonsense socks for Grumps (ie me) and the like.
It will remind me that Christmas should be a time of and for innocence, not sophistication, for sitting round a festive board, made festive by the people, not necessarily the food. It will be a time to remember a time that never was – the Victorian Christmas of Dickens and the traditional Christmas Card. But actually it really, really was! There were many white Christmases in the time of Dickens’ childhood and youth. And villagers did get out and about and sing carols on the green and knock on doors (not threateningly like the trick-or-treaters), but generously and grateful for a hot mince pie for their trouble. People did roast chestnuts stuck on forks before open fires (I can remember doing that every Christmas as a child). People also died of cold like the little match girl – not a story many children read nowadays – but even that story is a magical story of hope and love conquering human indifference.
Christmas should remain magical and does for me, so long as I shut out the clamour and the noise – the glitter and the showbiz. And so long as I go to Church for at least one service between dusk on Christmas Eve and dusk on Christmas Day, I cannot fail to get back to the original words that inspired it all – and I do mean Church, not a TV liturgical spectacular, from which you can get up to get a coffee during the boring address or the carol you don’t happen to like.
And over it all I shall hope to remember and not just to remember but to do something positive – gladly not churlishly – for those who do not receive the message, the childhood memories or the current family togetherness that I so easily and comfortably enjoy.