Bleak Midwinter

As a chaplain I often had conversations about Christmas, anytime from autumn onwards. For example, Fred spoke to me about a dear friend who had died recently. Every Christmas the friend would call round and the sherry would be poured. They would exchange memories of a shared childhood in the same town. As they recalled this past there would be humour and affection, as well as sorrow for the people no longer here. Even in September, Fred was thinking about the loss of that annual conversation and hospitable company. Who would he share the sherry with now?

When illness changes someone’s circumstances the prospect of Christmas, and how it will be celebrated, soon comes into focus. In care homes the festive season begins early and runs late. The great wealth of what is resonant and recognisable has real value for people beginning to experience dementia.

“I used to make paper chains like that with my Nan!”

Here is something in the middle of winter that touches all our senses as we celebrate with familiar festivities. A feast for the eyes; the smell of baking; the sound of carols; the taste of seasonal drinks; the touch of those we love.

Of course, this can stir sad memories, but it also offers the poetry of carols to console; the richness of food to comfort; and the frivolity of crackers and paper hats, to remind us we are all crowned with mortality – and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

The Nativity screen below the East Window, York Minster.

This year the weeks leading up to Christmas, like almost all of 2020, have brought news that has been both unusual and unwelcome. Tighter restrictions on the lives of ever more people; damage to livelihoods and the economy; myriad losses experienced by almost everyone – from the lives of loved ones, to cancelled events we once took for certain. Planning for Christmas has meant choices about bubbles and the kind of gifts it feels appropriate to give. Yesterday afternoon we learned that for many people even the possibility of being with others from a different household has vanished.

“They have passed one after the other;

Father and mother died,

Brother and sister and brother

Taken and sanctified.

I am left alone in the sitting,

With none to sit beside.”

From “Christmas Day: The Family Sitting” by John Meade Falkner

I am not surprised that people are distressed by these changes. For many, Christmas Day is a time-lapse biopic. For those of advanced years, it’s an 80 frame story told from our earliest memories. A production rich with the appearance of new characters, and alongside this the sudden absences of much loved figures. The other elements of the day offer a social history of changing taste, expectations and technology. This won’t be the case for everyone but it is for many.

Never in my lifetime has the celebration of Christmas been curtailed for millions upon millions of people. The central fact of the festival isn’t cancelled, and places of worship will remain open and active. Yet it will be a Christmas like no other for countless millions of us. Amongst whom we mustn’t forget those who have marked many festive Decembers, but who this year will not be present with those they love. For people who have spent much time and energy thinking and preparing for the festivities, it may make a difficult and uncomfortable day “with none to sit beside”.

In this bleakest of midwinters we draw to the end of a dreadful year. A year in which 1.7 million people have died from a disease we were unaware of until twelve months ago. Countless others have been unwell, some with stays in intensive care which they will never forget. Tomorrow in the Northern Hemisphere is the shortest day – the old date for the Feast of St Thomas, when the darkness of doubt was greatest, and light seemed to hold least sway. At this fulcrum of the year we are reminded that doubt and uncertainty do not endure indefinitely, and that by using the gifts of tenacity and understanding even humanity’s greatest nightmares are eventually dispelled.

To all those who read this blog I wish a very Happy Christmas. I hope and pray that each of us will do whatever we can to make it a celebration with some good to remember. Arrangements may be rushed and last minute – and we may feel upset that our plans have not gone the way we wished. Yet perhaps we can be consoled with the memory of the Nativity, and life beginning in a makeshift bed far from home. Good things can come out of circumstances we wouldn’t choose. Maybe we simply need to recognise it is beyond our control – and offer what it is to God. Which of us can know what might happen when we share the imperfection of our plans with the God who didn’t begrudge a stable as the place to birth perfection?

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