Christmas is the most renowned of all the world’s festivals. It’s full of drama and contrast and potent symbols. Like many, I dread the tawdry commercialisation, sentimentality and ubiquity of this season’s trappings. But I see it differently now, having spent an entire year celebrating the daily advance and decline of Nature’s rhythms in the hills, woods and fields, in all weathers.
Originally published on December 10th, 2006
I went out on a windy wet afternoon at sunset. The ground was waterlogged and the fields were desolate near Amersham Old Town, which keeps a memorial to its Protestant martyrs burned at the stake in the sixteenth century, for committing the heresy of reading the Bible in their own English tongue.
I thought of the peasants of Amersham in the days when they’d rely upon their priest or wandering friar for tales of the Christ-child’s birth in a lowly stable, which they could imagine only too well. The bright star which led the Wise Men to Bethlehem would have been so vivid, in centuries where candle- or fire-light was the only illumination in these English winters where it gets dark in the early afternoon. They’d have felt close to the shepherds watching by night, suddenly accosted by an Angel: “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . .”; shepherds who went cap in hand into a mean shed for cattle and goats to see a new-born baby. Never mind theology, consider the impact on those poor people whose hands would get frost-bitten and whose backs would ache gathering whatever winter fuel they could—perhaps illicitly. If Christmas was the time of generosity and forgiveness, the time of jollity, of receiving gifts of food and drink from their feudal lords and “betters”, who could possibly set his heart against Christmas?
It is no wonder that our carols and our cards are about antique snowy scenes and Yule logs and olde England and the evergreen plants so sacred to the Druids as symbols of life: holly, ivy, mistletoe. In olden days in these chilly Northern latitudes, Christmas was full of meaning and comfort. But it’s spread to the tropics, to latitudes with little seasonal variation and also the Antipodes where December is summertime. We’d find it very incongruous if we weren’t accustomed to it from an early age.
As I walked the damp darkening fields, I felt glad to discover what Christmas had meant to my ancestors. I got to the main road where the cars roared past at a frightening speed, each one equipped with its own heating and music, each driver hurrying back to a well-lit warm home with plenty of food at all times of the year. Instead of gazing into the embers of a log-fire and evoking old stories that we’ve been told, we press a button and let someone’s professional imagination create the images for us on a screen. Can delicate sensibilities survive the assault? This is sadder in some ways than the hard life our ancestors had to endure.
It is not surprising that many voices in the UK speak against Christmas, for its symbols don’t have the drama they once did. I’m glad that I understood something by getting cold and wet, and feeling that twilight desolation, and saying some wordless prayer for my poor ancestors whose hearts and hopes were so uplifted by the dramas of Advent and Christmas.