Some years ago, a few weeks before Christmas, I observed a flustered young mother who had been dragged into the toy section of a supermarket by her three small children.
They wanted everything and they wanted it now. One of them piped up: “Isn’t Santa very rich, Mammy.” “Not as rich as you think,” she grimly replied.
I sense that no matter how often we promise ourselves it will be different, the week before Christmas is a frenetic time for most of us, shopping, office parties, last-minute posting.
George Bernard Shaw was rather cynical about it all. He wrote the following about Christmas as far back as the last decade of the 19th century: “I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas.
“It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralising subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press; in its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.
“We must be gluttonous because it is Christmas. We must be insincerely generous; we must buy things that nobody wants, and give them to people we don’t like; we must go to absurd entertainments that make even our little children satirical.
“As for me, I shall fly from it all tomorrow or next day to some remote spot miles from a shop, where nothing worse can befall me than a serenade from a few peasants, or some equally harmless survival of medieval mummery, shyly proferred, not advertised, moderate in its expectations, and soon over.”
Phew. He must have been glad to get that off his chest. Oh, come off it, George, wherever you are now.
There are nuggets of truth in your observations, but overall you sound like an intellectual scrooge.
Christmas can be a wonderful celebration. For those of us of the Christian persuasion it is an opportunity for us to deepen our appreciation of God’s immense gift to us and to share it with our families and friends.
To paraphrase some words of the Russian novelist, Boris Pasternak, humanity lived in a dark cul-de-sac before the birth of Jesus. The word of God was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.
Poetry, according to the Greek poet, Selferis, is the conversation of civilised people. That, to me, sounds somewhat elitist, even patronising. Poets have, however, a way of getting to the truth at the heart of things.
May I share with you some of my favourite poetic pieces on Christmas.
The contemporary poet, Thomas Kinsella,
God greet you, sacred Child,
Poor in the manger there,
Yet happy and rich tonight
In your own stronghold in glory.
Motherless once in Heaven,
Fatherless now in our world,
True God at all times you are,
But tonight you are human first.
For many people, Patrick Kavanagh is the quintessential poet of Christmas. His ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is the best-known and most successfully formed evocation of the season.
Though the imagery is of a rural world, long disappeared, it still speaks to me of the mystery of Christmas night.
I also like his ‘Christmas Eve Remembered’:
I see them going to the chapel
To confess their sins, Christmas Eve
In a parish in Monaghan.
Poor parish and yet memory does weave
For me about those folk,
A romantic cloak.
No snow, but in their minds,
The fields and roads are white,
They may be talking of the turkey markets
Or foreign politics, but to-night,
Their plain, hard country words
Are Christ’s singing birds.
Bicycles scoot by. Old women
Cling to the grass margin,
Their thoughts are earthy,
But their minds move
In dreams of the Blessed Virgin,
For one in Bethlehem,
Has kept their dreams safe for them.
May I make two suggestions this Christmas time. First, that we may show solidarity with those who find it impossible to join in the joy of the season – those who celebrate Christmas under the dark shadow of illness, those for whom 2018 is a cauldron of painful memories, those in prison and their families.
Inevitably, death has visited many of our homes in the past year. There are aching absences in many people’s lives this Christmas time, there will be symbolic empty chairs at many Christmas tables. As Paul Durcan acutely observed in one of his poems, Christmas can be ‘the Feast of St Loneliness’.
Secondly, in the feverish activity of the Christmas period, may we also find time for some quiet reflection on what we are and where we are going in life.
Pádraig J Daly puts it well in ‘The Days of Christmas’:
“They are days to walk inward,
Along the water-lapped shores,
In the womb of mountains;
By quiet, sun-yellow islands,
In a cobbled sea,
In that seatown
Of deepest self
A child begins life over again.”
Most of all in these busy days may the peace and joy that comes from the birth of Christ bless us and all our families.