A few nights ago I attended an old-fashioned Nine Lessons & Carols by candlelight in the small country church where my father, a retired Anglican priest, takes a service twice a month. It was attended by about 50 people, a good turnout given St Dunstan’s is fairly remote and serves a small and scattered rural community (there is a pub over the road which has miraculously survived into the modern era despite barely changing its décor and appearance since about 1930).
What a wonderful sensation to see the light blazing from the church across the silent marshes, and how much simple joy there was in entering a warm, bright, crowded church
It was pitch dark when we arrived, freezing cold and quite still. What a wonderful sensation to see the light blazing from the church across the silent marshes, and how much simple joy there was in entering a warm, bright, crowded church. We were in some sense enacting and embodying the fundamental truth at the heart of the Christmas story, the entrance of the illuminating truth into a gloomy and uncertain world. “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world”, as John’s Gospel has it.
Ever since childhood this has seemed to me a very important component of the Christmas ritual. It’s certainly not essential – tens of millions of Christians live in countries where freezing temperatures, long cold nights and stark, hard winters are more or less unknown. That does not mean, however, that it is mere sentimentality or a confusion of national culture with true religion. Ours is a universal church with a message of hope for all mankind, but it is also a church made up of people from particular places and countries. This means that we all integrate the truth of the faith into our national cultures in different ways. We embed the central themes in our lives according to our specific situations and experiences. This is what TS Eliot meant when he said in the poem Little Gidding that “the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere”; eternal truths are in some sense abstract and cannot be definitively tied to anywhere, but equally our understanding of those truths is always mediated through our own life stories and the culture and environment of a place.
Ours is a universal church with a message of hope for all mankind
This is why I do not accept the criticism that the traditions and stories that have grown up around the British Christmas get in the way of people understanding Christianity properly. On the contrary, in many ways, they create a structure of plausibility for newcomers to the faith. They create a possible way in. It’s common – and understandable – for clergy to roll their eyes at Christmas and Easter worshippers; but they are being drawn by something. In the words of John Betjeman’s moving poem Christmas:
“And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.”
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist. He also writes for Unherd.
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