Confiteor: I rather enjoyed Christmas 2020. Having agreed with my parents that, in the context of a global pandemic, driving to Wales and back in a day with a teetotal lunch in between was no-one’s idea of fun, I stayed put in Oxford. After a comfortably early Vigil Mass, at which I was both organist and permitted cantor, I spent the next morning ringing around various friends and relations before getting on with the festivities in the beaming company of a few stranded students.
It was the first time that I had ever been in charge of Christmas lunch, and it suited me just fine. Boarding school put me off turkey for life, so we had roast beef; brussels sprouts were banished, because they are of the Devil. My recipe for success involved no firm timings, and therefore no pressure to perform; when it became clear that the meal was going to be late to the table, we just opened another bottle of champagne.
I remain painfully aware that this was not everyone’s experience; for many people, especially the isolated elderly, it was a thoroughly lonely and miserable time. I have no idea, even as I write this column, what restrictions may or may not be in place by the time it appears in print; an ongoing element of anxiety and foreboding is inevitable and understandable. Nevertheless, is it possible to look forward more hopefully to this Christmas than to the last?
It has been fascinating to see how this topic has been broached at Westminster and in the secular media. I raised an eyebrow, no doubt with others, at Grant Shapps’s suggestion in October – in his capacity as Transport Secretary – that the planned response to the general shortage of lorry drivers and fuel would enable Christmas to “go ahead” this year; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, sounded a similar note, and so did Oliver Dowden.
As if Christmas were in the gift of Her Majesty’s Government! Even in the darkest days of the Commonwealth, with meals being snatched off tables by zealous and po-faced Puritans, it was not the state’s to control, however Oliver Cromwell might have liked to think it was. Further afield – wherever the Church has been and continues to be persecuted – underground Christmases have come and gone, year by year and decade by decade; those small flickering candles and whispered Amens a quietly defiant sacrifice, offered faithfully in the face of oppression and danger.
What those Right Honourable and well-meaning gentlemen meant, of course, was that the government was committed to ensuring that supply routes would be open. Mr Dowden went on the record to say: “I am confident that people will be able to get their toys for Christmas… Just buy as you do normally.” Now, I’m all in favour of bursting hampers arriving from Fortnum & Mason, or cases of Burgundy from Berry Bros & Rudd – really, please do keep them coming – but has the pandemic taught us nothing?
We can look forward to a better Christmas this year if we are able to keep Advent in the hallowed ways that have been handed down to us from the wisdom of the ages. To seasoned Catholics, the four great themes of these 30 days of purple – Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – are no morbid reminder of what must come to us all in the end. Rather, they are an exhortation for the Church to place the Incarnation in its proper context: one that does not rely on production lines, delivery vans or groaning shelves.
The great feast of the Word made Flesh demands our attention not as inert, passive creatures, but as breathing, thinking humans who are made for relationship, interaction and contact with God and each other. Let us therefore dream that we may approach Christmas this year with the churches safely open, the traditional services reinstated, and fellowship with friends and strangers alike.
Even if those hopes are dashed once more, however, the message remains the same. I know no happier rendering of it than the last stanza of John Betjeman’s “Christmas”, which the late Poet Laureate originally brought out in A Few Late Chrysanthemums in 1954.
No love that in a family dwells, No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine.
May your Christmas, when it comes, be happy and holy – however you end up spending it.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund