The general election is under way, which means ’tis the season of knocking on doors and invading the homes of strangers. Of course we all hesitate: is that friendly offer of a good old British cuppa a gesture of sympathy or a cunning means to hold you up and stop you canvassing a few more houses?
Other people’s homes, gardens, dogs, cats and doormats suddenly become clues to voting intentions. Weeds and peeling paintwork probably mean the owner doesn’t vote at all, but it could also indicate a disabled person living alone with inadequate support.
What really has surprised me, however, is that so many people have put up twinkling trees, stockings and other Christmas decorations halfway through November. As a child I would be overcome with excitement when the family began the festive festooning on Christmas Eve and the Salvation Army was playing carols in the street during the last Saturday’s shopping.
For years now my generation has grumbled at Christmas decorations on sale in September and it is now pretty well expected that private houses will be adorned from early December … but mid-November? Surely not? Mary and Joseph have not even saddled up the donkey and if the Wise Men from the East are already on the dusty road they cannot yet have travelled far from home. It is two weeks before the first window will be open on the advent calendar. Yes, I shop early for Christmas but that is just to avoid the mad rush in mid-December.
Surely if decorations are put up so soon, they will have lost their charm by Christmas. Will they have become part of the background rather than something new and exciting? Anyway, at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, what about all the dust accumulating under them? Eek!
Festivities that begin too early lose their meaning, but of course Christmas itself has lost its meaning. The decorations are to celebrate what? Even the charm of the school nativity play is wearing thin with parents complaining if their child plays the donkey instead of Mary. That Christ would have volunteered for the humbler role does not enter their heads, because the season is no longer about His birth and the dawn of redemption.
As a child I found certain hymns incomprehensible. “There is a green hill far away, without a city wall.” But why, I wondered, should a green hill need a city wall? “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.” How rude, I thought, not to want Him.
Now I wonder just how incomprehensible some of our carols must be to children in this secular age. “Hail, redemption’s happy dawn.” Understanding that line means knowing about Easter as well as Christmas. “Where like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around.” And so it goes on: the widening gap between what Christmas is supposed to celebrate and what the festival has now become.
Where once I found some hymns incomprehensible, so now I find “must have” presents for the younger generation baffling. I have only just about mastered WhatsApp, so I have no idea what their wish-lists mean except they are very technological and very expensive. So these days I just send the parents a cheque and leave them to buy the presents, and I am none the wiser when I receive the thank you letters.
Quite what any of it has to do with the birth of Christ, I am not certain. I do know that He would want us to feast. His first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding feast. He celebrated the feast of the Passover.
He was dismissed by his critics as a glutton and a winebibber. So I am not one of those killjoys who mutter darkly that we should not consume so many calories or that we should feel guilty because too many in the world are starving. The festivities in my family were always preceded by “let us give before we receive” and the mission box was passed around.
Eating and drinking to celebrate the arrival of redemption is to my mind a blessed occupation, provided only that nothing is carried to such excess as to cause problems to health or behaviour.
Which brings me back to those people who have their decorations up in mid-November. This is also about the time when various organisations begin to hold their Christmas lunches, and every year I have fun watching for the earliest appearance of the turkey and sprouts in the same way I watch for the first (always pre-December) Christmas card.
Christmas for me begins with the Christmas Eve meal, followed by Midnight Mass; but somehow, because of the long lead-up of these early celebrations, it feels more like the end than the beginning.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and Brexit Party MEP
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