Belfast Telegraph

Paul Hopkins: Deep down, the message of Christmas was, and is, always the same... we made it through another year, so let's spend a few days reminding each other of what is good about life

You don't get many days like this, so this festive season we should celebrate with the people we love the most, writes Paul Hopkins

James Stewart and Donna Reed in Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life which delivers a message of hope
James Stewart and Donna Reed in Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life which delivers a message of hope

In an age where we are, sadly, increasingly cynical, the thinking goes that Christmas is at best a hijacked pagan orgy, that of Saturnalia, and at worst a humongous hybrid of religious conditioning and monetary manipulation. Given the excesses in both celebration and in spending - for those who can afford it, that is - both arguments, arguably, stand up.

For me, though, Christmas runs deeper than mere religiosity or economic stimulation, its origins profound, sacred and etched in our very psyche, with enough magic to go round the world, making its celebration something very special.

Why Christmas came to be an almost global phenomenon - even for people who never set foot inside a church - has to be understood in context. And the context - which does predate Christianity by tens of thousands of years - is that December kicks off winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

And, for most of human history, for nearly all our ancestors, winter spelt out not just the doom and gloom of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but the salient fact that many would not make it to the other side of the Winter Solstice. They would, in fact, die.

The darkest days of December past saw plunging temperatures that would chill the weakest and oldest to the grave and climate play havoc with hunters and gatherers, so it was, with so little fodder or warmth, in many ways the survival of the fittest.

As TS Eliot puts it in The Journey of the Magi, "A cold coming we had of it..." In the birth, too, of Jesus, the Christ Child, there is the story of hope, of life, of renewal, of salvation.

Those of our ancestors who did miraculously manage by fluke, or by fortune, to make it beyond December 21, that shortest of days and longest of nights, celebrated the survival of nearest and dearest by feasting on what morsels they had managed to forage, and celebrated like there was going to be no tomorrow, as so very often that was the case. Life for our forefathers was brutish and short, tenuous even.

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The majority of us, though by no means all contemporary humankind, are so detached from that notion today - when the cold means nothing more than mild annoyance and sometimes slippery roads - that it's hard to grasp how recent this was, and that this was the way of all flesh for virtually all of human history.

Every year, you headed into winter with just enough stored food and fuel to get by. The old and the sick knew they might not make it through, and an especially harsh winter could mean that no-one would feel the sun's warmth ever again.

Every year, you watched all of the plants turn brown and shrivel into husks, followed by an unrelenting darkness and cold that threatened to swallow you and everything you loved.

Looking back at that scenario, even as recently as 150 years ago - little wonder Dickensian times are so entwined with many of the Christmas traditions still with us today - we can see how resilient we humans are: how innate is the struggle to survive that to live to the dawn of a New Year is cause for celebration, with a feast or festival, or just outright debauchery.

Such celebrations went by many names over the millennia and everyone did it their own way, hence the variations on how Christmas is celebrated throughout the world, even to the point that it is not necessarily on December 25.

Deep down, though, the message was, and is, always the same: "We made it through another year, so let's spend a few days reminding each other of what's good about life."

No matter how black, white, male, female, Irish, English, tall, short, ugly, or pretty you have felt this year, you are part of a family that has been targeted by an unforgiving cosmos since its inception but has, against the odds, survived.

We humans are an inherently heroic species that has spent about 99% of its short lifetime in dire circumstance. And if you see no Christmas cards telling you that, it's not because it's not true, but rather because there's little profit to be made telling you so.

Despite the history lesson here, Christmas isn't special because of what it was, or where it came from.

It's special because of what it still is: a festive gathering around the fire - no matter the means of celebration - that might well be the last time you see the faces of loved ones you celebrate with.

That part of Christmas has not changed.

There's always the empty chair on this day of days.

This Christmas, statistically, some of you are in fact travelling to see your grandparents, parents, or siblings for the very last time. You don't know it's their last Christmas, of course - and if you somehow could know, you'd maybe do it differently.

You'd try to stretch out those moments, instead of losing the day in a haze of alcohol. You'd spend a little more time digging up and sharing old memories and laughing about your collective past. You'd spend less time worrying about the gifts and the cost, and more about how we're really spending the precious little time we have left with one another.

So, as you gather with family and friends - those you love - this Christmas Day, celebrate it with this in mind.

You don't get many of these. Make them count.

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