Of Dogs and Snowmen
As I sit writing this on December 1st – and we have not yet started Advent, that begins on Sunday – the weather is cold, and it certainly feels like the end of the year. 2017 is one of those odd years when Advent is actually very short, being just 3 weeks and one day (although still four Sundays, the last being Christmas Eve). Last year it was very long, because Christmas is a feast set on a specific date, whereas Advent is defined in terms of the four Sundays before it, so Advent contracts and expands over the course of a seven year period. For most people, however, today is the first day of Advent, because today is the day they open the first window of their Advent calendar (although my son forgot to do so this morning!). As I reflected upon last year, there are many for whom December is a battleground between the sacred and the secular. The burgeoning business in “seasonal” leisure activities – Christmas Markets, parties, shopping experiences, shows, etc. – can make it seem that there is little room for the more contemplative, reflective practices more traditionally associated with the season. The presence of Advent calendars depicting traditional Nativity scenes in our supermarkets is to be welcomed, but their positioning on the bottom shelves (the stuff you are pushing is always placed at eye level) is a sign of the times. Needless to say, in my local Tesco (other supermarkets are available) the two ‘traditional’ advent calendars on sale (including the fabulous offering from The Real Chocolate Company) were still available in large numbers at the weekend! Of course, when I was young, the Advent calendar was a series of cardboard doors with a small picture behind, except on Christmas Day, when it was a double door, so pretty much anything involving chocolate is an improvement!
We do need to accept, however, that things do change. They always have. The way we celebrate Christmas in the early 21st century is a combination of rampant commercialism and Victoriana. Christmas trees in homes were not a common feature before Prince Albert in 1840 (although it can be argued that Princess Charlotte, the wife of King George III, was actually the one who introduced the custom from Germany in 1800), with households in Victorian Britain always keen to follow the latest Royal trend. Many of our favourite Christmas carols are Victorian, and the turkey only replaced the goose as the food of choice at Christmas during this same era. ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge which gives us many of our seasonal images, is another Victorian creation. The red-suited Santa with which are so familiar was likewise a late nineteenth century culmination of many differing traditions. We should not, of course, confuse Santa (an anglicisation of the Dutch Sinter Klaas, who was in fact St Nicholas, and the model for the American Santa we see today) with our own Father Christmas, who was a medieval embodiment of the season of good cheer and benevolence, often dressed in green and always larger than life, and pretty much uniquely British.
For all that, many modern and relatively modern traditions are wonderful. The service of Nine Lessons and Carols, for example, pretty much the gold standard church carol service, was created for King’s College, Cambridge in 1918, and has been broadcast on Christmas Eve on the BBC since 1928. Modern Christmas trees are amazing, putting to shame the pathetic things of my youth which dropped needles in copious quantities from day one, and the lighting displays seen on every housing estate across the land would have put Blackpool to shame thirty years ago. Television has also provided some ‘go to’s. For us, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and, more recently, ‘The Polar Express’ are always viewed during Advent. The enchanting ‘Snowman’, featuring the gorgeous ‘Walking in the Air’, made famous by Aled Jones, has recently been added to with ‘The Snowman and the Snowdog’ – not as good, but not as disastrous as The Phantom Menace. The ‘Strictly’ Christmas special and, of course, ‘Doctor Who’ on Christmas Day cannot be missed, not forgetting the Queen’s Speech. Thankfully, ‘The Sound of Music’ is less frequently broadcast on the Big Day.
Yes, traditions, whatever we think of them, are here to stay. And how we weave the story of that first Christmas into them will determine how the younger generations will understand what has gone before. It is not, I am convinced, and malice which relegates chocolatey Marys to the bottom shelf, but a failure by those of us who know and love Jesus to put Christmas across as a time of celebration for the salvation of all humanity, rather than an opportunity to grumble about decorations going up too early or the ‘Elf on the Shelf’.
Jesus spoke to everyday people in everyday terms. He didn’t criticize their traditions and customs, but challenged them to love God and to love one another. Love of God can be seen in a gaudy display of Christmas lights put up in mid-November, but love of one another cannot be seen in sneering condemnation of the same. I am sad that more people do not come to Church over Christmas, but more will come at that time than pretty much any other, so if they encounter only mockery and a sense of awkwardness because they don’t know where to look for the Agnus Dei, then we may be sure they won’t be coming back.
Christmas is for everyone, because Jesus is for everyone. Within some pretty broad boundaries, there is no right or wrong way to worship God, but there are many ways to get it wrong when spreading the Good News of his birth, life, death and resurrection. If we truly believe that Christmas starts with Christ, that Jesus is the reason for the season, then this time above all is one when we must show that we follow his teachings.
And that means smiling at Santa in his grotto.
Singing along with Slade and all the rest.
Dressing up like elves, if really necessary.
Recognising that this season is for everybody, everywhere, however they choose to celebrate it.
Whatever their Advent calendar looks like.
And, most of all, celebrate like we mean it! Sprouts and all…
God bless and a very Happy Christmas!