The Christmas question

Christmas tree with decorations

It’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, I’d gripe. In a normal year. (And my clergy and church worker friends, who would have been thinking about Christmas since August if not before, would roll their eyes.) In a normal year I’d have been making excuses to get out of this term’s workplace choir sessions (because weekly Shakin’ Stevens turns out to intersect really, really badly with my tendency to seasonal depression) since September, and right about now I’d be pondering whether it would be more socially awkward to sign up for the Secret Santa and misread my giftee’s preferences than not to sign up at all. I’d also have worked out which branch of the family I’d be spending the actual day with, booked the leave, and had a look at the trains.

But here we are, and a whole load of people are thinking about Christmas vocally, loudly, and argumentatively. We’ve just had a minor hail shower, so one could even argue that the weather’s getting in on the act.

So here are my thoughts about Christmas under Covid-19 restrictions, how I will (attempt to) deal with it myself, and some ideas which anybody’s welcome to act on or not, as they feel would be most helpful.

Feelings

There are many feelings. I’ve been through disappointment (I’d have loved to host a big Christmas gathering in this, our first year in our new house) and am now somewhere between irritation and boredom.

It is OK to be disappointed. It is OK to be irritated. It is OK to be bored. It is OK to be sad. (If you’re somebody who finds it helpful to think about how there are lots of people in the same boat, it might be worth remembering that millions of people are, well, in the same boat. Not to mention folk of other religions who have had to modify their festival celebrations without nearly so much of a fuss having been made.) It is OK to be secretly relieved! (Personally, I’m rather glad that my parents won’t be spending four hours in a car with each other, debating the merits of an outdated satnav and outdated Ordnance Survey maps all the way from the Isle of Wight to the Fens. And I’ll also miss them.)

Anyway, whatever you’re feeling, there’s probably a good reason for that, and, so long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be obnoxious, that’s fine. Not that you need my permission, obviously.

Traditions

What’s going to be weird this year is that thing we always do – which we can’t do, or shouldn’t do, or won’t do.

And I suppose the question to ask oneself, when considering how or whether to replace that thing, is: what is it about this tradition that is important? Why do we do this? What’s the quality, the essence, of this thing that we always do? And can you replicate that in some other way? To pick a very obvious example: if you always visit your great-aunt on Boxing Day, but this year her care home isn’t allowing visitors, well, can you make it a phone call instead? Do you usually bring her a box of marzipan fruits? Put one in the post to her, and get one for yourself too. It won’t be the same, but perhaps it will have enough of the original essence to work. And see Feelings, above: you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you feel about it not being the same.

One of the least negotiable elements of a Jowitt Christmas is the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College on Christmas Eve. The Queen is optional; Doctor Who is dependent on whether we have a working television; the communicant members of the household may or may not be awake enough to go to Midnight Mass; but you’d better believe that at 3pm on Christmas Eve Radio 4 will be playing. We will sing along with the congregational carols (some of us will attempt the descants); we will have grumpy choral opinions about the choir-only carols; we will listen out for our favourite passages (upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude whom no man can number; the weaned child shall put its hand into the cockatrice’s den); we will argue about the correct pronunciation of cockatrice.

When I was a child, we’d decorate the tree (fighting over who got to put up which baubles) while my father lit a fire and my mother iced the cake. Now we all live in different houses, it’s become rather looser. I doubt, for example, that my brother could get Radio 4 when he was working in a ski resort in the French Alps. But it’s still an important part of the festivities. In 2017 my husband and I got up at 5am and queued outside King’s for the tickets to be there live. In 2018 we listened to the broadcast and then went straight on to sing the exact same service at our parish church. Other than that, it tends to be my father and I texting each other ‘Bound!’ when the choir sings Adam lay ybounden. This is a reference to a long-dead dog. Hey, it’s a tradition.

And honestly, a lot of what’s important about that is that we always do it. We: me, my parents, whichever brothers happen to be around. Always: every Christmas. It’s about that shared experience, doing the same thing at the same time. It isn’t so much about the Christmas story, which comes across better to me at live church (more on that further down).

What’s that going to be like this year? I suppose it’s down to King’s and Auntie Beeb. I’m sure there’ll be something in that 3pm slot, whether it’s a smaller, physically distanced choir, or a recording from a previous year, but let’s imagine there isn’t. What might we do instead? Off the top of my head:

  • find a previous year’s service on YouTube, send the link around, and agree to watch that at 3pm
  • conduct our own service (it’s all in the back of the first volume of Carols for Choirs)
  • put on a CD/record/playlist of carols
  • listen to what was being broadcast on the radio instead

By next year, that would probably have become a tradition in its own right. And circumstances that are less than ideal can spawn their own, more optimistic, traditions. For example:

The year my parents separated, there were suddenly two houses and two Christmas trees. And only one of me.

That Christmas was grim, but one thing was worth doing, and has stuck: I bought two identical tree ornaments, one for each of my parent’s Christmas trees. I couldn’t be in two places at once, but I could at least show that I wished I could be.

Over the years, I’ve expanded the practice, and now send tree decorations to both of my parents, the two of my brothers who have moved out, and my in-laws, as well as keeping one for our own tree – so even when I can’t be with someone for Christmas, there can be something of me there.

Sometimes I’ve made decorations. Sometimes I’ve bought several identical ones. Sometimes I’ve got a set and split it up. Glass angels, laser-cut wooden dragons from Ljubljana, crystal stars, iridescent hummingbirds… This year I’ve been threading gorgeous faceted glass beads onto thick silver-plated wire and bending it into abstract spirals. This tradition, born of one of the most painful experiences of my life, has become one of the preparations that I most enjoy.

Cardboard box containing Christmas tree decorations made from faceted glass beads and silver wire.

Enjoyment

I talked about relief, further up the page. And if it’s a relief not to be going home, not to be having the blazing rows over Brexit or your sister’s wedding or why you don’t have children, then make the most of it. This could be the year you break the tradition. You don’t actually have to do things just because you’ve always done them. If you’d actually prefer Christmas at home, Christmas on your own, Christmas with your bubble, then why not go for it? Work out what you want to do, and do that.

Looking out

Christmas is traditionally a time for attempting to make things a little brighter for people one doesn’t know. Here is a seriously incomplete list of ways in which someone who had the time and/or funds might do that, even (particularly!) in such a year as this.

  • Make a donation to your local foodbank. It can’t have escaped many people’s notice that there’s a real problem in this country with poverty, and poverty-related hunger. There are going to be a lot of people this year for whom Christmas is not going to be fun at all. (I have a standing order set up, but I also throw the occasional pack of fun-sized Mars bars into the collection basket at Sainsbury’s, because poverty is miserable enough without being wall-to-wall lentils.)
  • One idea I’ve seen is the ‘reverse Advent calendar’ – put one item aside every day to give to the foodbank. The only problem with this is that, if you want someone who have nice things at Christmas, you need to get it to them in advance, so maybe do it through November instead of Advent.
  • Make a donation to another appropriate charity. Safe Passage, for example.
  • Find out what’s going on near you and who needs help. Is there a befriending service? A Covid mutual aid group? A local newspaper, Facebook group, or community noticeboard should give you some pointers.
  • Here’s an initiative for getting Christmas presents to children and teenagers in mental health units.
  • You’re expecting me to encourage you to fill a shoebox with toys for an underprivileged child. I’m not going to do that. Here’s why. And here’s an alternative if you still want to.

Church

Well, we got through Easter. Easter was before we had proper internet access, so in this house we got through Easter livestreaming a Zoom service via mobile phone tethering, so Christmas ought to be a doddle.

Seriously, though. Nobody seems to know what church services will look like come Christmas, but I think it’s fair to say that they probably won’t look any less weird than they do now. At the moment, in the Church of England, people in church have to wear masks through the service (unless they’re leading, singing, or reading), the congregation isn’t allowed to sing, and numbers are limited – which might mean that, come the big turnout of Christmas, services may have to be ticketed.

If your typical Christmas includes attendance at a church service (crib service, carol service, Midnight Mass, whatever) and you haven’t been to a service since the pandemic hit, you might want to try one in the next few weeks to get the initial weirdness out of the way.

Your church may have something on its website to explain the arrangements. They may also be streaming services. Anyway, it’s extremely unlikely to be the same as normal, and you’re probably better working out how it’s going to be different, and how you feel about that, well before Christmas.

Advent

My plan for this year is to lean hard on Advent. Possibly harder than I usually do. As I hinted at the top of this post, I don’t deal terribly well with the festive pre-Christmas season, and I just don’t have the energy to celebrate all the way from mid-November. I get sick of the parties and the music and the constant expectation that I be cheerful and sociable all the time. So this is one of the aspects of normal Christmas that I’m rather relieved to escape this year.

In a normal year, I lean hard on Advent. To quote something I wrote last year,

Advent suits my mood. The readings are apocalyptic, saved from despair by the hope that something better is coming, is on the way even now, if I can only keep hanging on until I see it. The music is alternately spare and intense. I shut myself in the study each evening and take time to be where I really am. Advent comes a day at a time, a door on the calendar, a centimetre on the candle. A square inch of sweetness, which is about all I can manage while others around me are already on the mince pies and gingerbread liqueur.

Advent leaves space for me to rant and rage and demand why everything is awful. Advent lets me admit that things are awful. Advent acknowledges the hole in my life. It doesn’t demand false cheer. And very often I find that, little by little, it makes room in my life for something that is genuinely joyful, whenever that comes.

And if that was true last year, how much more so this year?

Come and grump with me! Tell me what I’ve forgotten, or about new practices or traditions you’re inventing this year. Comments are open.

December Reflections 26: delicious

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Boxing Day tends to involve a lot of food: either leftovers, or food that is not technically leftovers, but only because nobody got around to cooking it. And when you’re combining British and Polish traditions, you end up with two huge meals, and even more food that needs eating afterwards.

This morning I cooked omelettes topped with smoked salmon, which would have been the fifth or sixth course of Tuesday’s Wigilia (Christmas Eve vigil) meal, if we hadn’t been full after several other dishes of fish/soup/pierogi/carrots/more fish. And I meant to take a photo of them for this prompt, but between cooking them and then eating them I completely forgot about it. So here’s a slice of Christmas Eve bread instead.

It really doesn’t matter. Everything I’ve eaten over the last couple of days has been delicious.

December Reflections 25: today is…

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I slept last night in a house that’sbbuilt into the side of a hill, so the bedrooms are downstairs, and when you get up, you literally get up. And coming upstairs to see all the trees lit up in this glorious golden morning sunlight lifted my heart into joy.

We were talking last night about the the tendency of people (all over the place, not just here) to think of a bygone golden age, probably coinciding with the year they were about ten, which of course was never really like that. And somebody said, ‘But the golden age is now’.

Today is golden. Today is illuminated with visible light and a deeper light.

Look at that apple tree.

The Journey

Kings and camel from Playmobil nativity set

Crevasse            and chasm,         piano,        bookshelf,        mantel: we set off
when all the rest have got there, go the long way round,
know nothing of what draws us save that far faint blaze
of glory glimpsed across vast empty skies. We saw,
and set out on a path long known, unprecedented,
traced our own steps; idled, forgotten,

inched forward;

travelled

in fits

and starts;

one last unlikely leap compelled us, just in time. To see,
learn what we had forgotten, remember what we longed for.
We have been here before, but never quite like this –

– For one brief day we stand before eternity,
knowing at last, and seeing, seen and known,
this moment not to be clung to, lost in its attainment –

– Journey done, we wait once more in darkness. Next time
we’ll start again from the beginning, knowing
the way to be long, fulfilment fleeting,
but worth the travel, travail, this time, next time,
for all time. Beyond time.

December Reflections 24: traditions

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Christmas Eve:

Morning: last minute dashing around (this year, looking for wool for my mother, who was playing yarn chicken with my brother’s fiancée’s Christmas present); making mince pies if I can be bothered

2.55pm: the radio is switched on for

3.00pm: the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge (not last year; we were there in person)

during which –

  • the tree is decorated
  • the cake is iced

4.45pm: change for choir

5.30pm: leave for choir

5.45pm: brief warm-up before:

6.30pm: Nine Lessons and Carols at our parish church

8.00pm: dash home

Through the rest of the evening:

the several courses of the Polish Wigilia meal, beginning with sharing opłatek (pictured) with a hug and a kiss, and finishing with cherry vodka in tiny green and gilt glasses,

and, if we’re done before

11.15pm: dash out to the midnight service

12.30am: come home, put the bike away as quietly as possible given the fact that the padlock on the shed has frozen up, and go to bed

Two families’ worth of traditions, together with our shared tradition of singing (and therefore telling us what the Director of Music tells us). It’s like this every year, and next year it will be different again.

 

 

 

 

December Days 23: #ChristmasMeans

Help us spread the real meaning of Christmas to as many people as possible by tweeting what Christmas means using images, video and text

SHAN’T.

I am stretching the definition of ‘prompt’ a little bit here, since, while the Church of England has certainly prompted people to write about what #ChristmasMeans, I think I’m meant to do this on Twitter, and, you know, take it seriously.

I started on Twitter, but it ended up spread across several increasingly irritated and unintelligible tweets about why I dislike being told to do things on Twitter.

So I thought I’d write about that on here, instead.

I have never been able to take the Church of England’s hashtags seriously since their #EverythingChanges campaign a few Easters ago; anyone who’d watched five minutes of Torchwood must have been sniggering. (Not that Torchwood was without its clunky paschal imagery, I must admit. But still. The twenty-first century is when #everythingchanges, and you gotta be ready.)

Twitter encourages triteness. The tweets currently gathering on the hashtag are no doubt very sincere, but they are mostly making me want to vomit. I am a terrible Christian (but a very British one). There is not much room for deep theological debate in 140 characters – 115, once you include the hashtag – and simplistic religious messages, however pithy, set my teeth on edge. I am the sort of Christian who smiles at, and, yea, retweets, things like ‘Actually, axial tilt is the reason for the season’. (And this is the reason that I will never be invited to tweet from @OurCofE.)

And then I think I am just hopelessly contrary. Even things that I like doing, that I would go out of my way to do, can be soured for me by a Twitter instruction to do them. Go to this! Do this! Why not…? I growl, ‘I already do this, you patronising tosser’ or, ‘Sod off’. I very rarely retweet things that tell me to retweet if I agree, even if I wholeheartedly do agree – because I don’t want to place that same burden upon my followers. This is, I think, just my stuff about being told what to do, and I don’t know where I picked it up from, but it’s a thing.

On top of that, there’s that instruction to proselytise, in the superficial ‘ask a friend to church’ way, that I have never, ever, felt comfortable doing, that has never felt authentic. I will write some other time about my profound discomfort with the idea of ‘mission’, about getting free of that, about the liberating revelation that I don’t have to try to convert everybody. #ChristmasMeans is a ghost that haunts my past self, that tells me that I am an insufficient Christian, even though the harder I try the more diminished my faith feels. I didn’t actually have this in mind yesterday, when I added “I do not pressure or guilt other people into doing things they don’t want to, dammit” to my dammit list, but in fact it’s one of the oldest hurts I have, and no better for being partly self-inflicted.

#ChristmasMeans is also setting my teeth on edge, particularly coupled as it is with that old guiltbag ‘the real meaning of Christmas’, because I can’t help feeling that the subtext is ‘and you, whatever you are doing, are failing to understand what Christmas really means. You are celebrating the wrong thing, you are too selfish, too impatient, too taken up with worldly matters.’

And there are enough expectations placed upon people at this time of year as it is. I say this as a comfortably-off middle class person with no children who isn’t going to have to do any cooking until the 29th. I feel bowed down with the expectations that people – good, faithful, Christian people, in many cases – are putting on me, and it is exhausting to hand those expectations back to them graciously.

Insisting that we focus on the Real Meaning of Christmas just adds another expectation, unless we are also given permission to not take part in the Unreal Meaning. It has been a real struggle for me this year to write Christmas cards. I don’t know why; I know they ought to be simple for an administrative genius like me, and God knows I feel like a pathetic excuse for a human being for not even being able to write a simple Christmas card, but there it is.

I know that I can choose not to write Christmas cards. I know that some of the consequences of this will be: that some people will not hear of my new address; that I will go on some people’s Stinge Lists; that some people will not even notice; that some people will notice and wonder if we are still friends; that some people will notice and wonder if I’m all right. And so, because the thought of all that is daunting, I have written the damn things, and sent them.
I would like to know that #ChristmasMeans that I am not, actually, a pathetic excuse for a human being even if I do fail to write a single Christmas card. Somewhere, deep down, I do know that. But it doesn’t fit into 140 characters.

Do not get me wrong. For me, the Incarnation is the most important thing in the history of this planet. (Yes, for me, even more so than the Resurrection.) And yet #ChristmasMeans feels at once like an invitation to troll and like a burden that I cannot bear.

#ChristmasMeans turkey and mince pies

#ChristmasMeans new Doctor Who

#ChristmasMeans the most beautiful music ever written

#ChristmasMeans the most awful music ever written

#ChristmasMeans hard work

#ChristmasMeans I am, as ever, a social failure

#ChristmasMeans feeling horrible for rolling my eyes at the hashtag

#ChristmasMeans I am, yet again, failing to be a good Christian

#ChristmasMeans pretending I’m coping

I will tweet one single, serious response. It will not convey everything I am trying to convey. But it is the best I can do, and it will say this:

#ChristmasMeans you are OK exactly as you are.