Forget the panto; the classy destination in the run-up to Christmas in London is Simon Callow’s terrific one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol, in which he takes all the parts, but notably that of Scrooge, with just chairs for props, and got a standing ovation the night I was there. The story itself has become the very embodiment of Christmas Past. In fact, it’s so much the incarnation of the season, you wonder how anyone managed to celebrate it properly before it was written.
This is peak Dickens season, and peak Christian season. Not, obviously, in the sense that Christmas is more important than Easter, but that it’s the time of maximum overlap between the Christian sensibility and the secular one. The former director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, in an insightful interview with Mary Wakefield in the Spectator, declared that Christmas showed that the culture is still broadly Christian: the generally shared sense of obligation to be charitable and generous at this time, above all others, is an expression of the character of the Christian feast.
And that character was never better expressed than in the first chapter of A Christmas Carol when Scrooge’s nephew tells his uncle reproachfully:
I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
As the nephew correctly noted, nothing belonging to the season can really be considered apart from its sacred origin and character. The philanthropy and glow of goodwill and sense of human solidarity isn’t fortuitously associated with Christmas; it’s inextricably derived from it. The Christmas appeals in newspapers in support of politically sound causes, the office Christmas parties which are occasions of at least two deadly sins, derive from the sense that we have something to rejoice over; it’s not only the human instinct to make as much warmth and cheer as possible in midwinter.
The elevation of the poor, which is one of the things the Incarnation is about, is a reason for our (relative) open-handedness towards the homeless at this time. The homeless are associated with every Nativity play that has infant innkeepers declaring “No more room!”
Actually, Scrooge in his pre-conversion aspect did talk a certain amount of sense about the excesses of the season. I can entirely take to heart his observation: “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?” Yep, I’m there. Dead right, Mr S.
But it’s good still to have a time when the Christian year impinges on the secular year, however much the secular festivities undermine the sacred ones by starting too early and finishing too soon.
More and more, we may feel as if we inhabit a different world, one in which religion is suspect and Christianity has no more claim on the loyalty of the nation than any other belief system, including the absence of any faith at all. When Christianity is being pushed inexorably to the margins of public life, at least now, in this season, it’s centre stage. For a while, our world and everyone else’s overlaps. Christianity in the West is in decline, but at least Christmas, with the Incarnation bound up inside and outside it, is alive and well.
At the Spectator’s annual carol service at St Bride’s Church in London, there was the usual cheerful gathering of the magazine’s journalists and readers, with one of the best bits being the columnist Rod Liddle’s mordant reflections on the season. This year it was The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, and one of them was a reflection on Good King Wenceslas. And his take on the carol was, “The feast of Stephen? What’s all that about then? Who is Stephen?”
I can only hope he was joking, because if this Anglican didn’t know about the feast of St Stephen, there is no hope for the rest of them. In Ireland, such ignorance is unlikely, because there December 26 is invariably referred to as St Stephen’s Day. And my next-door neighbour used to recall that when she was small, in rural Limerick, on that day the Wran (Wren) Boys would go from house to house, holding a wren (deceased) on a stick, demanding money or treats and singing:
The wran, the wran, the king of the birds On Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze Though he was little, his family was great So come on you ladies, give us a treat.
There was another stanza which I can’t remember.
I was never sure why it was that the wren should be associated with the feast of St Stephen, but there’s a new book on the wren by Stephen Moss (Square Peg, £12.99/$24.95) which puts me right. He observes of the Wren Boys that “they knocked on doors and demanded food and drink, sometimes in exchange for the bird’s tiny feathers, which were supposed to be a lucky charm (though not for the unfortunate wren, which toward the end of the day might be almost bald).”
He suggests various explanations for the custom (for which we have no record in Ireland earlier than the 17th century), including that when the Irish were at war with their enemies, the wren betrayed their whereabouts by tapping with his beak on a drum and giving them away.
But another is more apposite for the season: “The wren is said to have betrayed St Stephen when, just before his execution, he attempted to escape: the bird is meant to have flown into the face of one of his sleeping jailers and woken him up.” So that would make the ritual something like symbolic justice for the fate of Stephen.
Whatever. The point of the Wran Boys is that they were continuing the Christmas season in a fashion that did not involve descending en masse on the sales, in person or online. It was part of the tradition of the day that it was kept with due festivity. Indeed, my next-door neighbour – who was the most important spiritual influence on my childhood – took a very dim view of the people who thought their religious obligations were over with going to Mass on Christmas Day. And for me Boxing Day will always be the feast of Stephen.
Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard
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