Pastoral Reflections

No Nowell? Oh Well

An editorial in Tuesday’s Yorkshire Post read in part:

Given what the country has already sacrificed, and with potential vaccines in the pipeline, now is not the time to put the public’s health at undue risk.  Christmas is, traditionally, a time of goodwill towards others and the best gift of all this year is everyone accepting these unique circumstances and thinking of others as they prepare their own festive events.

In a “Letter to the Editor” a reader echoed the same thoughts and concerns:

As much as I love Christmas and seeing my family, I am happy to accept that this year it is sensible to put normal celebrations on hold.  With vaccines on their way, it makes little sense to rip up the sacrifices made since March.

Someone else wrote:

We are witnessing highly irresponsible calls to ease Covid restrictions so we can have a ‘normal Christmas’…apparently essential for the nation’s welfare even though doing so (could) mean thousands not living to see much of 2021.  This year Christmas cannot be, nor should it be, ‘normal’.

It’s going to be very difficult especially given that Christmas is seen as a time for family get-togethers and celebrations.  Despite concerns about the spread of the virus, the devolved governments have given in to mounting pressure by allowing families and friends from a maximum of three households to mix within “Christmas bubbles” from December 23rd to the 27th and to relax social distancing within those bubbles.  Given that the virus doesn’t know what date it is, there is still a need for personal judgment and caution especially given that huge swathes of the population, and particularly the elderly and those at risk health-wise, haven’t set foot over their doorsteps since March and could be at even greater risk now as a result of having not been exposed to even the normal run of viruses and infections in all that time.  Despite the decision that government has made it is urging us to think carefully before we take advantage of the relaxed restrictions.  Surely that is in itself an admission of the risks involved therefore why are we taking them? – and especially when some health scientists are saying that the relaxations are a mistake.  

It’s a bit scary to find myself agreeing with, and quoting, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for the second time in a week, but she has just said, very sensibly, that just because restrictions are going to be relaxed for five days over Christmas, it doesn’t mean that we have to automatically do what we are being allowed to do, and she encouraged people to choose to do what is the sensible and safe thing to do and simply spend Christmas quietly at home by ourselves rather than put ourselves or others at risk just because the Government says we can.

Everybody is talking about the importance of “celebrating Christmas”, and that is the concept that is driving government policy and decision-making just at the moment.  But what exactly do people have in mind?  For many it will be the traditional family gathering – eating, drinking and being merry – which is OK, but in and of itself it isn’t “the reason for the season” as they say.  And if family gatherings are so important to people, why aren’t there more of them all through the year? (And there clearly aren’t otherwise there wouldn’t be so much fuss about the possibility of not being able to gather this Christmas.)  For most people celebrating Christmas will have little, if anything, to do with what Christmas is actually all about – the commemoration of the birth of Christ – and so why should it matter to them if Christmas celebrations were postponed to a later date this year?

The reality is that we don’t actually know when Our Lord was born.  As it says in the Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, the earliest mention of December 25th was in the calendar of Roman practices for the year 336 – a date probably chosen to counter the pagan feast of the sun on that date.  The observance in the Western Church of December 25th as the date of Our Lord’s birth spread from Rome, but in the Eastern Church it is celebrated on or near January 7th and so December 25th as Christmas Day hasn’t been quite as “set in concrete” historically as we might think, therefore would it matter if we kept it on a different date, or even in a different way, this year given the circumstances in which we find ourselves?  And I’m sure Our Lord wouldn’t mind at all.

Just to leave aside the religious aspects of Christmas for a moment, most people if asked would associate it with shopping, cards, holly, sleigh bells and so on and, of course snow!  We all tend to remember white Christmases when we were kids, but whether that is selective memory, or whether what we more typically experience now is down to climate change, white Christmases are few and far between even though there is still that strong association for most of us.  Indeed anyone living south of the Equator, where the seasons are the opposite of ours, probably wouldn’t make that same association anyway. 

In that respect I have spent some very untypical Christmases over the years.  My first such experience was during four years spent in Zambia.  Not only was the African climate far from Christmassy, but there was a total absence of the commercialism that has become associated with Christmas – few if any cards to buy and no Christmas shopping.  But it was no less Christmas.

If Christmas in Zambia was untypical, my experience of it in the desert of the Middle East was distinctly bizarre.  At one time the expatriate family camp where I worked used to be decorated with Christmas tableaux, and can you imagine how incongruous that must have looked: painted scenes of Christmas trees and snow when the temperature was over 100 degrees and the sun blazing down!  On Christmas Day there used to be a nativity procession through the camp with, of course, real camels!  When I was there, expat families still decorated their houses and gardens with Christmas lights, but with more Muslim families living in the camp any overtly Christian symbols were soon banned.  If you knew which shops to go to in town you could buy cards that wished “season’s greetings” but rarely if ever contained the word “Christmas”.  Again it was no less Christmas and unofficially there was even a priest there and so we could celebrate with Mass but whilst maintaining a very low profile. 

My next three Christmases were spent in Florida where the commercialism of Christmas was, of course, at least as bad as it is here, but again there was a slight disconnect with the fact that, although a little cooler at that time of year, the weather in central Florida was hardly Christmassy – but that didn’t take away from the fact that it was Christmas. 

The point is that Christmas is what you make of it wherever you are and whatever the circumstances you are in.  There may not be the usual trappings but it is still Christmas, and celebrating the birth of Christ ought to be possible wherever we are.   And so when people are demanding that the lockdown should be eased because of the importance of celebrating Christmas, as I said earlier I would want to ask exactly what celebrations they have in mind.  If they are wanting the pubs open so they can drink until all hours, that’s got nothing to do with Christmas.  If they want the freedom to attend family gatherings, OK that’s a little closer to the mark, but it’s still not essential when we are dealing with a worldwide pandemic that has taken the lives of over 56,000 people in the UK – a number that had fallen close to zero until the first time restrictions were eased and now the government is going to do it again.  Who was it who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome? 

This past week someone on the radio suggested postponing Christmas until perhaps March when hopefully we will have a vaccine and it may therefore be safe to return to something closer to normality.  Just to show what we are up against, one listener’s reaction was: “Christmas in March is stupid unless people get time off work, also all the stores would need to restock seasonal products.” Is that all Christmas is about to them, time off work and Christmas shopping?  Another said: “I mean, come on, it’s just one day with a load of decorations up.” Again is that all Christmas is about to them and even then with not a lot of enthusiasm.  A third said: “A March Christmas wouldn’t feel right.”  Maybe not, but a lot of things don’t feel right just at the moment but we are having to do them anyway for the common good. 

The thought occurs that, in our increasingly godless society, if most people have no idea of the real meaning of Christmas and therefore how it should rightly be celebrated, then easing the lockdown just so that everyone can do the normal social things they do on Christmas Day would hardly seem to justify the risk of increased infection rates and deaths that will almost certainly result.  No amount of hand-wringing after the fact is going to help.  Nor is it justified to relax the lockdown restrictions on the basis that people are going to ignore them anyway – and, of course, no one is going to expect the police to go knocking on people’s doors at Christmas and charging them with breaking the rules.      

Those of us who will try to celebrate Christmas as the Christian feast that it is, and given that it is our feast in the first place, haven’t demanded any concessions in that regard but have quietly accepted the need for the safety measures we are already observing.  Hopefully our churches will still be open when Christmas arrives and, even given the limits imposed by the need for social distancing, those who are able will gather at our Christmas Masses.  In fact instead of Christmas celebrations being limited to the 24th and 25th, there will probably have to be Christmas Masses all week in order to accommodate all those who will want to go to church.  And, of course, whatever we may have to go without this year, or that we may need to celebrate on a smaller scale than usual, it will surely make next Christmas, God willing, even more special.  Meanwhile any sacrifices we may have to make will hopefully contribute to holding down the infection rate and saving lives – even our own – until the long-awaited vaccine is finally available.  As that editorial said:

Now is not the time to put the public’s health at undue risk.  Christmas is, traditionally, a time of goodwill towards others and the best gift of all this year is everyone accepting these unique circumstances and thinking of others.

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