by Josie Smith.
It seems that many people have been doing so since about September, with an added anxiety this year about whether or not it could happen normally.
I recall a few years ago walking through a local garden centre in early November with our then minister in pursuit of a quick lunch in their café. It would have been difficult to find gardening gloves, secateurs or planters, let alone rakes, watering cans and wheelbarrows among the tier upon tier of Christmas-themed objects, twinkly lights, life-sized nodding illuminated fibreglass reindeer and artificial trees.
The minister mused ‘There are twelve days of Christmas, and none of them is in November.’
I remembered this in October this year, in the garden centre again during a lull in the lockdown. They were busy setting up the Christmas display, with newly-built wooden partitions and shelves making a sort of maze to negotiate, arrows indicating permitted direction, signs on the floor at two-metre intervals, and sanitizer on the counter. (I recalled a cartoon I saw once, inspired by this sort of premature celebration, with the caption ‘But she hasn’t even told Joseph she’s pregnant yet!’)
The papers and the broadcast media have been speculating since September about what Christmas would look like this year. On the 19th November in the ‘i’ newspaper Gaby Hinsliff wrote ‘Demanding a Christmas suspension of pandemic hostilities, as if the virus could be trusted to do the decent thing and respect a religious holiday, sounds horribly like an attempt to maintain the illusion that we’re in charge – when the truth is that the virus is sliding back into the driving seat.’ This year has been like no other (though the Black Death and later manifestations of the Plague had none of our medical knowledge or pharmaceutical resources so were much worse to live through or more likely die in) and attitudes range from those who want a ‘normal’ Christmas, whatever that is, to those who say that as other faiths were not able to celebrate their festivals ‘normally’ why should we?
We are almost at the end of the season of Advent, the time of waiting. What are we waiting for? What’s Christmas about, really? Do you ‘love it or hate it’ as though it were Marmite? When I was a little girl, long ago before the explosion in consumerism, I quite liked (some of) the presents, though when everyone decided to give me boxes of handkies one year I was disappointed. All I wanted was a kitten. But the routine demands – that I perform for the visiting relatives, which I am sure they disliked as much as I did, that I dress up in a red dressing-gown and pretend to be Father Christmas, and then, after tea in my great-aunt’s icy dining room, that I help to wash up (my brother being excused on account of being a boy) – made me determine never to subject my children to such expectations.
Doing Christmas Differently edited by Nicola Slee and Rosie Miles (Wild Goose, 2006) is a compilation arising from the thoughts and experience of a group of eight single people who could not, or would not, be part of an idealised, but often fraught, traditional ‘family’ Christmas. They met for a week at Holland House, Cropthorne, to create a way of marking Christmas that went against the grain of mainstream social custom. One anonymous piece, late on Christmas Eve, is from someone planning to spend the day alone, from choice. Well-intentioned friends and family had pressed invitations, but had met with cheerful refusal. The day would be spent with the cat, the radio and TV, good food and drink, and a nice warm bed at the end. It concludes ‘I have seized the day, Jesus! Happy birthday, God!’
It’s all right to be different.
For some weeks, the mechanics of the 25th December, and the days before and after, were left to us to interpret, and now new stricter restristions are disrupting the plans many people had recently made. Many of us have distant family members we can’t meet – and many of us don’t want to take our foot off the brakes in any case, knowing that mixing will inevitably increase the risk of more illness in January.
But as we reach Christmas on Friday, may you enjoy whatever it is you are able to do. We welcome again, as we do every year, the eternal God, gift-wrapped as a human baby. Pandemic or no, God is with us. That’s what Christmas is about.