Christmas warmth illuminates dark times

The modern, secular season’s choreography of manufactured joy can be unedifying, but at its essence the winter solstice remains a beacon of warmth and light illuminating our natural human inclination towards renewal in dark times.

Christmas Eve by WC Bauer
Christmas Eve by WC Bauer. Credit: Niday Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s that time of the year again when the nights fall early and the streets shine with fairy lights, when stores put out their green, red, and gold signs, and when loudspeakers remind us a red-nose reindeer leads Santa’s sleigh, while all that Mariah Carey wants for Christmas is you. The festive season can seem to be a long choreography of carefully engineered joy on demand, barely hiding the fact that despair hits hardest between the 1 December and mid-January. In days gone by, Christmas was more associated with ghosts than with cheesy stories. Krampus, le Père Fouettard, or Mari Lwyd embodied feelings of guilt and remorse in the year gone by.

This year is the first ‘new normal’ Christmas after Covid policies suspended frenetic shopping and family gatherings for the last two years. Yet if you turn on the news or open social media, the mood is hardly joyful. The harshest grinches among us will say: ‘Why rejoice when the war in Ukraine goes on and on; power cuts are looming everywhere; and divisive ideologies erode any sense of togetherness at all?’

The very word ‘Christmas’ is gradually disappearing from marketing lingo, replaced, particularly in the US, with ‘holidays’ or ‘festive season’ — indeed why would you presume that Christ and his birth mean anything to an acquaintance emailed or a stranger walked by? Some would say Christmas is just a syncretic recycling of Yule anyway, and that the tree, the wintery scenes, let alone Santa and Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, are a consumerist mixture of paganism old and new. Others would say that instead of these orchestrated and insincere habits, we should perhaps skip the hefty dinner and costly gifts and spend some time and money helping the poor.

Christmas as we know it in Europe and the United States is a modern creation. The Christmas tree tradition could be dated back to the Lutherans or even to St Boniface cutting down Jupiter’s sacred oak. The fir tree, with its triangular shape pointing towards heaven, could be a fitting representation of the Holy Trinity. But if you ask a young secular consumer buying their first Christmas tree what it means to them, I doubt their answer would involve  the history of Christianity or the theology of the Incarnation. What does Christmas mean at all in a secular world in a gloomy time?

Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl, walking barefoot in the snow and hallucinating houses full of warmth, good cheer and food on New Year’s Eve, shows in a heart-rending way what the festive season could be, and what, most of the time, it is not. We are in the dead of winter. The days are short and the temperatures dropping. There is no reason to hope that things could ever get better. You might not be a Victorian match girl, but you may be lonely just the same.

The majority of our secular Christmas tales — from Andersen’s to Love Actually — start with miserable loneliness, and end in a togetherness that happens almost miraculously. The little match girl, tragically dead at the end of the story, nevertheless ends up in the embrace of her beloved, much-missed grandmother, an apparition from heaven. Scrooge celebrates his first happy Christmas with Bob Cratchit and his family, and in Richard Curtis’s film the characters realise that ‘love, actually, is all around.’ Christmas, secular or not, does not deny our dreadful loneliness in the seemingly endless winter. On the contrary, it acknowledges it, makes songs about it, and creates rites to break it. It recognises darkness: rites linked to light are the rhythm of the days before Christmas, be they the Advent wreaths where an additional candle is lit each Sunday, or the Swedish celebration of St Lucia, one week before Christmas, when young girls wear crowns of evergreen adorned with candles. It is also with candles that the Jews celebrate Hanukkah, commemorating the rededication of the temple after the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus IV by lighting eight candles. This echoes a miracle that came with Judas Maccabee’s victory: there was only enough oil to keep the sacred lamps lit one day, but the supply miraculously lasted the entire week, uniting both light and divine providence in a single sign.

Many complain about the artificial rite of gift-giving and card-sending. In his 1957 essay ‘What Christmas means to me,’ C.S Lewis wrote: ‘Can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers?’ The supernatural story of Christmas has been replaced by artificial joy on demand. The supernatural is, after all, rather unreliable; loudspeakers blaring out Wham’s Last Christmas have supplanted choirs of angels, and instead of a single bright star, we get electric fairy lights. Yet contrary to birthdays, weddings, or other celebrations, everyone gets the chance to receive warmth and affection. As for spending time with family members one does not particularly care for, how about trying to be at least as kind to them as many claim they would be to a homeless person on the street?

The truth is that human beings need rites and rituals, and when they don’t have them, they create new ones, uncannily similar to previous ones. Remove Advent as a period of penance ahead of Christmas, and you get the relatively recent phenomenon of Elf on the Shelf, an omnipresent toy with supposed access to children’s thoughts, words, and deeds. The liturgical calendar has a balance of feast days and periods of introspection, preparation, and commemoration, set out throughout the year to match the natural rhythm of the seasons. The winter solstice is all about the triumph of light over darkness. We have no reason to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the temperatures will rise, but, nevertheless, the days will lengthen again in a few months — so we have a rite reminding us that previous generations too were cold, lonely, and afraid, and that it is not actually the end of life as we know it. All will be well — this is what the Norse, the Greeks, the Romans were celebrating through their own rites at this time of the year. The solar god, hidden for a while, will return triumphantly.

But here is the plot twist of the Christian feast. ‘Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world,’ says young Lucy at the end of The Last Battle, the final instalment of C.S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  A couple, lonely and cast out in a barn because there was no room for them at the inn in a foreign city, receive the supernatural certainty that all will be well in the end, that all they had hoped for, all the love and wisdom anyone had ever hoped for, was right there with them. It is not a thundering god, nor an outburst of supernatural power, but a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth, and placed in a wooden manger. And because the child is born, people make a pilgrimage to visit — shepherds from neighbouring fields, and wise men from the east, drawn by wondrous signs: a star of incredible radiance and angels bringing tidings of comfort and joy. As the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II said, quoting a Christmas carol during her very last Christmas speech in 2021, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

Why ‘all the years’? The prophet Isaiah announces an era of peace when God himself will be present among his people: ‘Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.’ (Is. 7:14, KJV) The Hebrew Bible records many matriarchs conceiving miraculously in their old age — Sarah, Abraham’s wife, being the most famous, but the birth announced by Isaiah is not just a miracle, but the sign of a new era, an era of peace and justice: ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.’ Some 22 centuries after Isaiah, towards the end of the Roman Civil War, Virgil composed the fourth Eclogue, where the Sibyl of Cumae announces the birth of a saviour child and the coming of a new era:

Now is come the last age of Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!

How much exactly Virgil would have known about Hebrew poetry and prophecy is hard to tell, but for centuries these lines have been read as a sign of Christ being announced to the gentiles. A new era is about to begin. It is because of these lines that the Sibyl of Cumea is represented on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and that Dante chooses Virgil as a guide for his soul in the afterlife. The birthday of Jesus is, however, hardly remembered in the ‘Christmas rush.’ In a letter he wrote to Mary Willis Washburne in 1958, C.S Lewis recalls an anecdote of a woman on a bus whom his brother heard saying, as the bus passed a church with a crib outside it, ‘They bring religion into everything. Look, they’re dragging it even into Christmas now’ (C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, Dec. 29, 1958). Whether or not the 25th of December was the historical date of Jesus’s birth is, in a way, not as relevant as the meaning such a feast takes when it is celebrated in the darkest time of the year: we are called for something better than cycles of summer and winter. We are called to an eternity of joy.

We have been through darker times and worse years than 2022. On Christmas 1914, French, British, and German soldiers spontaneously ceased fire to mingle in no man’s land, play football, and exchange gifts and food. Stern orders prevented this ever happening again. Gloom has a certain sense of tyranny. It barges into our minds and hearts like a petty military officer.

Hope and fear come together at the lowest point of the year’s cycle. We only oppose them because we secretly believe we can control events of the year to come and deal with the consequences of the year past as easily as we can switch a string of fairy lights on. Yet the irrevocable, but cyclic passage of time eludes us, and complex emotions invade into our psyches and our bodies, an eerie feeling about ‘what comes next.’ So we wait for the year to end.

Christmas is a time when the supernatural becomes normal: the potential wonder and horror of the year to come awaits us there. It is about to unfold, and we know there is not much we can do about it. This is why our ancestor’s imaginations peopled those days with strange immaterial beings, and why it seems to us that after Christmas, the last week of the year is nothing but a long, expectant stretch, suspended in time. The trouble is that given our current frenetic pace of life, we fail to make this a shared experience, and imagine that the person next door or at the other end of the table does not feel the same emotions we do.

Each year, as the story is retold, we renew our same hope: that love will be among us in the bleak midwinter. Christmas and its rites, religious or post-religious, remind us that joy and mutual benevolence are not accidents, but active decisions we can make. Joy takes effort, sometimes even courage beyond the strength we think we have. Beyond emotional fluctuations of sadness or happiness, we can make the choice to smile and act warmly to those around us. We never know which Christmas will be our last, and whilst it might be a while, or indeed never, before we experience the eternal joy and blessedness many of us hope for; maybe this year we can give a glimpse of it to others. As Tiny Tim says, ‘God bless us, every one!’


Marie Daouda