Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

A world without Christmas would be a sad, sorry place

It's the most wonderful time of the year. But what if there were no kids jingle-belling, no caroling out in the snow and no one telling you 'Be of good cheer', asks Paul Hopkins

I had to ring my mobile service provider the other day and was kept waiting for a minute or two during which the sound of Wizzard echoed down the line with I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.

Perish the thought, I uttered. A three-six-five of excess and over-jolification. And imagine what it would do to the national grid with all those houses lit up like a Santa's grotto every single day of the year.

But it got me thinking: what if there was no Christmas Day. Where would we be then?

"At Christmas play and make good cheer for Christmas comes but once a year,'' said the 16th century author Thomas Tusser. There are many who might dismiss its modern-day excessiveness, given that Christmas seems to start sometime around August when shops start stocking tinsel and a 150-day countdown is the norm.

But I would argue that this day-among-days hasn't always come easy. Go back a few millennia and the definition of the word Christmas required that a child be born of a virgin and that child would be Jesus Christ.

Oliver Cromwell and his not-so-merry band of Puritans banned Christmas altogether between 1647 and 1660 and it didn't even earn its pride of place on December 25 until 1752 when the entire Christian calendar changed in line with the Pagan winter solstice.

When our ancestors were still in their caves, they celebrated the solstice as a way of giving thanks to that year's harvest and looked to nature to bestow more bounty on them in the coming seasons.

Without Christmas Day where would we make time to count our blessings, to take stock, to renew, to regroup, and to look forward?

To do away with Christmas would not only negate the thousands of years it has taken to amalgamate Pagan and Christian traditions, but also the great effort our Victorian ancestors put into this special day.

They were the great celebrators of the Christmas tree and from among them came those great purveyors of Christmas - Dickens and Mrs Beeton.

If we had no Christmas we would not have the wonderful work that is A Christmas Carol and there'd be no need for those trusted recipes for Christmas cake and mince pies. Indeed, Albert and Victoria would not have had to make a big fuss about decorating the tree and we would not be obliged to follow their example.

Take away Christmas and you displace a whole range of mountains and several islands which bear its name.

Imagine a world without a Nativity play performed by doe-eyed school infants, a world without infectious carol singing, without stockings hanging by the hearth, no kissing under the mistletoe, no visiting of graves: a world without Bing Crosby's White Christmas, no It's A Wonderful Life, no panto and shouts of 'Look about behind you ... ' , no baubles, lights or candy canes.

Imagine a world where, not even for just one day in the year, do we strive towards Peace on Earth to all Men of Goodwill. Were there never a Christmas Day, would the much written about truce between German and British or French troops during World War 1 have taken place? Something to bear in mind this Christmas as we think of those in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Tomorrow, for those who are lucky, is a time for giving, a time for receiving well-wishers and a time for a little gastronomic indulgence. No Christmas and we would not have the joy of the lighted candle to welcome all kind strangers, or the anticipation of opening up presents and yet another pair of knitted socks from your favourite aunt.

And the excitement and wide-eyed wonderment of a child at Christmas as, Teddy to hand, they clamber the stairs to bed to await the coming of Santa Claus. And oh the wonder of it all again very early next morning when Father Christmas has proved true to his word. Imagine what the year would be like without all of that.

Were it not for Christmas, there may well be scant attention paid to the Empty Chair. The Empty Chair that last year, and in the years before, seated someone close, someone loved, someone cared about, who, alas, this year is no longer with us.

There are times, admittedly, when the whole thing seems crass and commercial - and unfair to those less well-off and living in the most trying of circumstances. But I think that somewhere amid all the consumerism there is something rather mystical and enchanting about Christmas.

Without this day to mark the passage of yet another year, we'd have no regard for the Christmas that is within us all. That moment, that person, an event, a discovery, a feeling - but it's the sweet birth of something good inside you: your very own reason to celebrate Christmas.

Of course, sharing part, if not all, of the day with others can be meaningless if you do not have that joy of Christmas within yourself and can end up a form of empty desperation often seen around the turkey, in those forced smiles that don't quite touch the eyes.

Trying to find for yourself the true meaning of Christmas, whether religious or secular, is like the Three Wise Men who, after consulting the stars, set out on a long journey in search of something - though they weren't sure what.

T S Eliot describes their sceptical and difficult trek in his marvellous poem Journey Of The Magi. Remember, Christmas wasn't given to them on a plate. They had to go looking for it, as we do, and in conditions that are not always helpful. As the first line of the poem recalls: "A cold coming we had of it . . ."

If we didn't have Christmas we would not, of course, have the bickering, the family feuds that can often come as part-and-parcel. Bring selfishness to the day and you will receive selfishness; bring resentment and you will find resentment returned. But bring hope, love or kindness and you will receive it back one hundred-fold.

But let us not forget those who will spend tomorrow in abject circumstances whether it be political, social or economic.

At the heart of Christmas is an outcast couple. Different. Mary and Joseph, who, after public shame and rejection, faced the humiliation of their child being born in a stable.

Yet it was here that the angels, shepherds and wise men choose to gather and celebrate. Joy to the world.

Tomorrow, look at those gathering around in your stable and delight in them being there.

American author Garrison Keillor said: "A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we'll go through it together.''

Better still, remember what Charles Dickens wrote: "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.''

So go now, and a have a peaceful and joyous Christmas.

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