Friday, 27 December 2013

That is Not Yet That: on keeping Christmas going

W. H. Auden famously wrote about the despondent aftermath of Christmas:  'Well, so that is that'. He talks about taking down the tree and decorations, burning the holly, eating the leftovers, admitting our failure once again to love our relatives as we should. Once again, as so many times before 'we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility'. If you Google the first few words you can read it all, and you'll recognise what he's talking about.

It's written as a poem for Twelfth Night, but looking around you'd think it was meant for the day after Boxing Day. Or even that day itself, which is apparently (I didn't know this) one of the top shopping days of the entire year. Already on Christmas Day, TV advertising is tilting decisively away from Christmas and towards the other big midwinter themes of sales and summer holidays. By dawn on Boxing Day, the nation has already spent vast sums of money on online sales, and many stalwarts have been braving the cold and camping outside department stores with an eye for a bargain.

It all takes a determined effort and much stamina. Part of me disdains it: 'not me, thank you', but another part grudgingly admires this show of hope and perseverance. (If only we took our faith as seriously!) I'm not going to be grumpy about this colossal economic effort: as one bishop tweeted, it's good for the recovery. Let everyone spend Yuletide as they will. But I'm sorry that we let go of Christmas so quickly, so that even before the end of the year it quickly becomes a memory. 'Did you have a nice Christmas?' we're all asked a hundred times in these twelve days, to which I reply with a smile, 'Thank you. Yes, we are having a lovely Christmas. I hope you are too.'

When we live by the liturgical calendar, keeping the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is deeply instilled in us. But that's not altogether my point. It was not so long ago that most people kept an aftermath of Christmas Day, prolonging holidaying and happiness and good will for a few more days. The year would slip gently away to the echoes of carols and Handel's Messiah. Even in my secular childhood, there was never any question of not keeping Yule going until Twelfth Night. Boxing Day was for family visits or walks or fireside reading or the panto or film, not for shopping or even being particularly productive. In rural England, hard work did not begin again properly until the week after Epiphany with Plough Monday. The days were a necessary restful interlude before the pace of life picked up again in the new year. Have we lost something precious here?

The obvious answer is, our innocence maybe. Yet Christmas could be precisely the time to recapture it. The image of the Child who comes to us speaks perfectly to that longing for our lost innocence that the child in us still has. Auden is tough when he says later in his poem: 'once again we have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, the promising child who cannot keep His word for long'. But we need time to absorb the message of his coming if it's going to make a difference to life. The calendar gives us that time to let it sink in that we have sung and spoken about the better world we look for in the new year. Maybe the hectic lives many are living need the Twelve Days of Christmas more than ever simply to recover and stabilise.

Today is only Day 3 of Christmas. Three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. What's not to enjoy? HAPPY CHRISTMAS once again!

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