Last thursday was the shortest day in the year, mid-winter. Many of us have hardly begun to switch on heaters except to dampen down the damp. Today we will enjoy an additional four minutes of light and more and more of them until we reach Thursday, June 21, the longest day. Then it will start to get darker again.
There is a ruthlessness about time which young people correctly ignore. They would be a miserable lot if they did not. Those of us who no longer inhabit the age of youth, or middle age for that matter, find it more difficult to be blasé about the matter, but this is no reason to be miserable about it.
Still, what on earth, then, possessed the Son of God to leave his eternity to inhabit time and space and not only, to inhabit it in our shape? The Christian knows the salvific answer to this and for 2,000 years has celebrated the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Some people make much of the fact that Christmas followed on a pagan feast. But, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out: "One of the chief claims of Christian civilisation is to have preserved things of pagan origin... Even heathen things are Christian when they have been preserved by Christianity".
The problem today is whether we are not heathenising Christmas, whether we are not putting Christ on the back burner, so to speak, and bringing so much tinsel between Him and us as to lose sight of what tomorrow, and we, are all about. We do not need to adopt a puritanical attitude about this. Within the tinsel, around the lights of our Christmas trees surrounded by presents, on tables heaving with food, there is a sense of giving involved. There is a good side to the tinsel. The tragedy would be if we looked only at the tinsel. The tendency to do so is there.
Take the UK, because I have no figures for Malta. Dr Sentanu, the outspoken Archbishop of York, recently quoted from a Credit Action report. This predicted that total spending in the UK would reach £51.6 billion, or £865 per average adult (£378, presents; £163, food and drink; £53, wrapping paper, cards and postage; £64, Christmas trees and decorations; £121, socialising; £84, travel) or £4 million every hour during the ten weeks to Christmas. These are staggering figures. I wonder what our rate of spend in Malta is for the same period. As I wonder how much money was given to charity in the UK during this time.
In our case we can hold our heads up high in respect of the latter. I understand that a RAI fundraiser last week had brought in €29 million, probably more because the programme had not yet come to its close when I heard that figure. It sounds stupendous if paltry, compared with those UK figures. But if you look further into that collection and compare it with the odd million Maltese liri (say, €2.4 million) collected last year in the L-Istrina programme alone, you will be pleasantly surprised. Given a population of 60 million in Italy (the last figure I have is 59.7 million in 2002) and 400,000 of us on this island, we collected, pro rata, a boggling 150 times more than our Italian friends.
I see my editor's face as he ponders that one. Yesterday week he freaked me out when he called me to point out, correctly I am sad to say, that I was wildly out on some sum I had worked out. I gained a couple of zeros from nowhere. In this case, however, I dare him to wrong me. Here goes. Malta's population "goes into" Italy's 150 times. To reach the equivalent of our €2.4 million on a pro rata basis, then, our Italian friends had to rake in not a mere €29 million but 2.4 times 150 - or, €360 million. (Note to Ed: If my working is incorrect, give us yours).
The point of all this is to demonstrate that we may be big spenders on ourselves but we are generous with others in need. The Christ-spirit is very alive in this sense.
Winterval be damned
The struggle to take Christ out of Christmas over the past three decades was not enough. It is now the ambition of the secular front to take even Christmas out of Christmas. If they had succeeded in the former - they have not but, admittedly, they have made deep inroads here and there - victory in the case of the latter would have been made far easier.
They started in earnest some time ago until, in 1998, the city of Birmingham replaced the season of Christmas with the demented, frosty season of "winterval". "Happy winterval, Mrs Ainsworth". "Ah, and a happy winterval to you too, Masie" - and then, because Mrs Ainsworth cannot help it, "God bless you, Maisie". Eight years later, the Royal Mail, which one supposes owes its fealty to the Defender of the Faith, issued a Christmas stamp without Christmas.
The C- and JC words (except in the form of a blasphemy in the latter case) are under siege, but the besieged remain in good heart. They are saddened, naturally, not disheartened. A decade ago plus, in the United States, aberration, President Clinton and his wife Hillary announced to the nation that they would not be sending Christmas cards that particular year but happy season things. That was well before the "winterval" aberration. Their example caught on among lefties and fundamentalist libbies.
Now one reads that in New York schoolchildren are forbidden to use the word Christmas in their carol-singing, which is decidedly odd, the forbidden bit, not the carol-singing. Once you amble down that slippery slope it is not surprising to learn that even Silent Night caught the attention of the do-away-with-Christmas brigade. It became Candle Light. Holy candlelight! Holy gaslight a hundred years ago plus, I suppose, but then the problem did not exist. How on earth will they get round "heavenly light" and, far, far worse, "Christ the Saviour is born"? Some ban it.
But hush. High streets, where the forces of secularism-capitalism-consumerism naturally attempted a take-over, have experienced what many in the US, where all fashions begin and end, are hoping is the start of that trinity's undoing. Christians were encouraged to boycott shops that refused to recognise Christmas. Aach! Those beastly fundamentalists were at it again.
One of their targets last year was Wal-Mart, which like the Vicar of Bray, quickly changed its attitude when the cash registers were not ringing in a Christmas-like manner. The chain even dolled up a Christmas shop within its precincts and, I understand from a report filed in The Catholic Herald of December 8, "Christmas carols are played and employees greet shoppers with 'Merry Christmas'."
God is no longer an Englishman
There is a fine irony to all this. Retailers want to make a profit out of the very Christmas to which many of them give little or no credence. It is called jumping on to the bandwagon, however, rickety it may be. Anyway, it looks as if they may be receiving their comeuppance. Things are not all going Richard Dawkins' way; nor for that matter, the way of Bill Clinton and Presidential candidate Hillary.
Back in the not quite United Kingdom, to judge from a growing chorus of men and women who want England to declare its independence, 75 per cent of employers are alleged to have banned conventional Christmas decorations because these could offend employees who subscribe to another faith. One report said bosses "are worried that they could be sued if they allowed displays of Christian joy, but not those of other religions".
And yet, Muslims are in the forefront in their condemnation of this maniacal political correctness. It was reported that "Christian and Muslim leaders in England united to warn politically correct council chiefs to stop trying to purge religion from Christmas celebrations... attempts to exclude Christianity from the festival risked 'offending most of the population'."
An irate contributor who described himself as one who "flickers between an agnostic and a mild believer" wrote, very tellingly, to the Daily Telegraph and among other things said: "No, it's not the Muslims, Jews or Hindus who are behind the drive to secularise Christmas... The presence of a small cross round the neck of a British Airways check-in staff member does not prompt them to scream in protest, vomit in the aisle or rush for a transfer to another carrier... The demons in this horror story of crucifying Christmas are white, middle-class do-gooders whose assumption of a superior morality is as disgraceful as it is disgusting."
For his part, the Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh said in part of his Christmas message that he was heartened that Scottish Muslim leaders had publicly wished Christians an enjoyable Christmas season. It is clear that the authorities have lost their way and possibly, maybe probably, Bray-like as the tide turns, they will rediscover it after all. For theirs has been a Christian land for 16 centuries and the values that inform it are Christian values. And had not those feet in ancient times walked on English soil? Was He not, however improbably, an Englishman?
A start to the secularisation of Christmas has started in Malta, too. It was ever thus. By the time that process will start to peter out abroad (and as the demographic effects of a smaller and smaller European population starts to hit home, it will be time to look to our horses - and to God?) Malta's secularists will be in full swing, out of touch with reality but in full swing. The signs are with us already.
Why keep Christmas?
The question was put by Eugene Kennedy in his book The Joy of Being Human, a sequel he wrote to The Pain of Being Human. What follows is part of the answer he gave. It will serve as my quote for this week; a long quote that I thought worth sharing:
The answer, of course is that we keep Christmas not because life is nice but because it is cruel and harsh, because all too often it is not fair and comes out uneven. We keep Christmas because it tells us that despite all that is wrong with us, we have the help and forgiveness to be set right, that Jesus has come for all the ordinary people who keep company everyday with the pains of living.
"...at Christmas you need not look beyond the family for enough hurt to fill an entire lifetime. The story of the holy family seems far away as we witness around us the anguish of families shuddering under the impact of a life they cannot quite manage to share together. The child in the crib at Bethlehem is gentle and loved but recalls images, which are burned into our memories forever, of today's battered children. And the tenderness of Mary and Joseph toward each other is contradicted by marriages in which men and women make war with each other in scenes that make everyone afraid of Virginia Woolf.
"...Christmas finds us curiously far from the goals of a basically decent human life. There are those who say that at least we can now view life without the superstitious weight of religion, that we are well rid of believing in the kind of God who could let such a world go on. For these people the holidays only underline the desperate loneliness they see as our ultimate lot."
These are the reasons...
"...we keep Christmas. We would hardly need this feast were the world any different. It would be superfluous if we were already fully grown, or had mastered the lessons of love, or knew the combinations which automatically insure that tragedies would no longer occur and that the children of today would inherit a world tomorrow in which lambs fraternise with lions. There would be no point in Christmas if we did not know the taste of loneliness or the special suffering of hurting and being hurt by those closest to us. If the world were not in agony the birth of Jesus would have nothing to say to us. We would have no need for a God who loved our life, spoke our language, and knew first hand all of our heartbreaks...
"...We are not a race of supermen and, in the stillness of Christmas night, we can admit this to ourselves. We see ourselves better by the light of the Christmas star. It is a wondrous light not because it generates miracles but because it allows us a view of our real selves. Christmas is not fantasy; rather, it is one time in the year when we need not pretend at all... Christmas is not a demanding feast in that it asks the impossible of us. The real meaning of Christmas and the central meaning of this feast lies in this: We can respond to Christmas not by going beyond ourselves in the quest for impossible dreams but by discovering our true selves and living that reality more deeply.
"The light of Christmas is bright and steady enough to reveal us all as blind and crippled in one way or another. It deepens our appreciation of being less than angels and awakes us to be men who belong to the same glorious and flawed family. Christmas allows us to see beyond our pettiness and small vengeances and to stand above the unpredictable tides that sweep across our souls. The truth about Christmas is that it knows the truth about us - that we are imperfect and unfinished; that we have only begun our great journey toward the fullness of time when we will have fulfilled the promise of Christmas in history itself; that there is still hope for us who dare to be human. And this is why we need Christmas." (The Joy of Being Human; Reflections for Every Day of the Year, by Eugene Kennedy, Image Books Publication).