Our memories inevitably include the people we used to celebrate Christmas with, and who are no longer with us. My father died on Christmas Eve six years ago, so today is an oddly elegiac day, a bitter-sweet mixture of loss, thankfulness and those childhood longings we had when Christmas had almost arrived, but not quite. I remember on the day of his death thinking how strange it was to be mourning an elderly man while everyone else was celebrating a child’s birth. That same afternoon I had to get up in the pulpit in front of a thousand people and read the bidding prayer at the Nine Lessons and Carols. Its haunting phrase about ‘those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light’: I still find it difficult to get those words out.As regular readers of this blog know, we were not a religious family. But my mother and grandmother, both of German-Jewish origin, knew how to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps no European nation does Advent and Christmas more beautifully than Germany. My father was a long-lapsed Anglican, but he loved Christmas too, and our merged family traditions made for enjoyable, even magical, festivities. My grandmother would bake sweetmeats to die for: Stollen, gingerbread and Lebkuchen in a hundred different shapes and colours, huge piles of them that were not to be touched until Christmas Eve at sundown. She would create an immense herring salad that filled vast mixing bowls with its pink mixture of fish, nuts, raw cabbage, potato and beetroot that filled the house in late Advent with a heady unmistakeable aroma. If I ever scented it again, it would transport me straight back to Christmas in Lauradale Road in the 1950s. Sadly, it died with her.
I’m not sure what I thought Christmas was about when I was very young. I suppose it was a glorious midwinter festival of colour, light and gifts. I first came across Jesus at primary school. There, aged five, I got to read my very first words of scripture. It was my moment of fame at the nativity play where I had to read St Luke’s words from memory: ‘and she brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.’ Whenever I hear that verse read aloud at Christmas, there is a shock of recognition that I can’t quite explain. I doubt if many people can recall the moment their Bible-virginity was lost, but my memory of it is vivid.
The following year, there were voice-trials at school among those children who had made good reading progress to see who was capable of tackling the opening verses of St John’s Gospel at the end of the nativity. I failed miserably to make any sense of it. My best friend Andrew, who was brighter than me, got the part. How envious I was! But that too remains an important memory of the first time I heard a text read that was clearly portentous, laden with profound meanings that eluded me. I am preaching on John 1.1-14 on Christmas morning this year. I’m not sure even now whether I have fully understood it. It takes a lifetime to begin to plumb its rich depths.One more memory. This comes from my first Christmas in the church choir at St John’s Hampstead. It sang to cathedral standard under its legendary Director of Music Martindale Sidwell, and my parents thought I’d benefit from a good musical education there. They were right (though the fact that the choir offered musical scholarships to University College School down the road wasn’t lost on them). As I’d never been to a church service before, the liturgy both excited and baffled me. I have never forgotten that first churchgoing Christmas early in the 1960s with the lambent beauty of the Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve and the exhilaration of sung Christmas matins (yes!) next morning. We sang ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’. I didn’t know it but the ancient hymn by Prudentius soon became my favourite Christmas hymn, and so it has been ever since. Lo! he comes, the promised Saviour, let the world his praises cry, evermore and evermore. It still moves me deeply, as I know it will when we sing it at the climax of the carol service in Durham Cathedral tonight.
Festivals should help us cherish memories. Our new grandson Isaac, 9 months old, is with us in the Deanery to celebrate his first Christmas. He won’t know much about it. But his parents and grandparents, aunts and uncle know that to have a new-born infant in your home at Christmas time is something to treasure. And maybe, at some deep and hidden level of his little life, memories of light and colour, of warmth, laughter and love, of a magical and holy time are already being formed. Who knows?