Belfast Telegraph

Why, in many homes this Christmas, there will be an empty chair at the table

As you gather with loved ones tomorrow, remember: you don’t get many days like this, so please make it count

At this time of year, many of us remember those who are no longer with us.
At this time of year, many of us remember those who are no longer with us.
Journalist Paul Hopkins with his daughter Niamh in 1982

By Paul Hopkins, for my three children

In an age of increasing cynicism, 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. For me, Christmas runs deeper than mere religiosity, or economic excess, its origins profound, sacred and etched in our very psyche, with enough magic to go round the world, making for something special.

Why Christmas came to be an almost global phenomenon - even for people who never put foot inside a church - has to be understood in context.

And that 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 most of our ancestors, winter spelt out not just the doom and gloom of seasonal adjustment disorder, but the salient fact that many would not make it to the other side of the winter solstice; and would, in fact, die.

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

This is mirrored in the story of the birth of Jesus, the story of hope, of life, of renewal, of salvation.

Those of our ancestors who miraculously managed 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. That there might be no tomorrow rang true for so many. Life back then was brutish and short.

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 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.

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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.

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 it's because there's little profit to be made telling you so.

Christmas, as we know it today, resembles nothing of its past. A lot of what happened a mere century or two ago would shock some today: heavy drinking (and I don't mean Auntie May falling into the brandy butter) with all rules abandoned in an unrestrained carnival of carnality; rowdy public displays of excessive eating (and more drinking), the mockery of established authority and belligerent begging.

There was, as said, good reason for such a hedonistic hooley. December was the primary punctuation mark in the rhythmic cycle of work, a time when there was a minimum of such work to be performed.

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 with whom you will celebrate tomorrow.

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, or 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 fondly 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.

Love would be the guest at the table.

Christmas Day, for me, is that moment, that person, that event, feeling, or discovery, that rebirth of something essentially good in all of us: our very own reason to celebrate Christmas, whether it be the smile of a child, or the twinkle in the eye of the Auntie May, the unwrapping of a gift that tells you this is the best Christmas of all.

And therein lies, for me, the "religious" experience, deep in our psyche, in our hearts and in our souls. In our very being, like the air we breathe.

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 days like this; make tomorrow count.

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