I was reluctantly obliged to shop today and saw black tinsel on sale. It seems somehow a rather odd departure from the usual cheery red, green and gold. But then, there is a lot of that about. The Christmas countdown has taken hold, shops are heaving, houses show pretty lights peeking through the curtains and Jingle Bells seems to be playing in every store. I wonder how long ago it was that political correctness deemed it inappropriate to play carols in public places? That seems to have sneaked in. Yet isn’t it rather hypocritical to be afraid to acknowledge the religious element of a religious festival, whilst encouraging people to spend every penny they have, and then some, on the festivities.
I wonder too how many still feel a sense of reverence as they place the carved symbol of the Babe in the crib? I may hurriedly stuff the decorations in boxes come Twelfth Night, but the little wooden nativity is always carefully laid away. The doubt of evidence and political correctness have clouded the faith of many with a vague, uneasy sense of guilt. And that, to me, is criminal. Faith and its expression are and should be a deeply personal thing between the heart and the Awe that touches it, regardless of the Name or story we believe in. Does it matter whether the date of a birth is accurate? Faith doesn’t need hard evidence… it knows an intimate and personal truth beyond facts, one that lights the heart and guides the hand.
Of course, it hasn’t always been ‘Christmas’. The turning of the year through its darkest point towards the light has been marked for longer than the two thousand years of the Christian era. Midwinter rites, fire festivals, times of turning and looking forward have marked the dark of the year and may be amongst the oldest communal celebrations and rites. On all continents and in probably every culture through known history and beyond, this moment in the solar year has spoken to us in symbolic terms and given rise to expressions of faith and hope of brightness to come. Mōdraniht, Yule, Saturnalia, Hannuka… festivals of motherhood and light, celebrations of birth and the unconquered Sun… many now forgotten or labelled simply ‘pagan’, many unrecognised by the wider world, discarded and discounted by those who choose to wear other labels.
It really doesn’t matter what the name… or even the date, the recognition of the turning from dark to light has always been marked around the winter solstice. It is the spirit of the moment that matters.
Within our own lives too we find that turning point, when our worlds seem dark and we look towards a brighter day. There are many who will go through the motions of Christmas with panic as they try to conform to societal expectations beyond their means, financially or emotionally, clinging to the forms and losing sight of the inner heart of the moment. There are many for whom Christmas cheer will not be possible, shadowed by the acuteness of grief and loss. Many more who are gathering strength to face a changed world. I recall one Christmas morning, fourteen years ago now, digging the frozen earth, planting coffee creams and a sapling tree with my sons, three pairs of eyes, brown and blue, raining on the earth. It was a time when it seemed that the sun could not light our lives again.
But, of course, it does, with that healing inevitability of the turning wheel. The dark of the year is the nadir, that pivotal moment when we reach the longest night and know that the days lead inexorably towards the first snowdrop, the first sunlit morning of spring.