It was one of the first funeral visits I had to make as a newly ordained curate. And little did I know it would be one of the most affecting. The undertaker explained that the Dad had unexpectedly died of a heart attack in his work’s car-park and it took a few days for him to be discovered.
I rang their bell, nervously. You never quite know what you will have to deal with, what manner of grief will be present. Here it was raw, angry, and visceral. The family were sitting on the floor in their lounge, eyes red and puffy, Christmas decorations pulled off the wall. Discarded tinsel was piled up in the corner of the room. The house was cold. The tree was bare. Christmas had been exposed as a lie.
Later, I went to a parish Christmas party. Mariah Carey and Jingle Bells filled the air. The party atmosphere bubbled with a generalised bonhomie. “Cheer up, Vicar. It’s Christmas,” someone said, handing me a glass of fizz and ignoring the obvious fact that I wasn’t the slightest bit in the mood. They meant well, of course, but all I could think of was that this party didn’t feel anything like the Christmas that we had been hearing about in church.
There, we had been reading from the book of Isaiah: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Everything seemed the wrong way around. The people to whom Christmas was primarily addressed thought it an insult to their pain, and yet those who celebrated it the most seemed quite oblivious to its deeper existential message.
For the last twenty years or so, a new kind of Christmas celebration has been slowly working its way into the mainstream liturgical calendar. Its origins are in the Christian response to the longest night, around December 21, traditionally also the feast day for St Thomas, the patron saint of doubt. It was revived in the Eighties by people putting on Christmas celebrations in hospices. And it’s called Blue Christmas, blue as in feeling blue rather than an Elvis tribute Christmas service. It’s like Christmas except in the minor key, often with jazz music rather than traditional carols — though In the Bleak Midwinter often gets sung.
Blue Christmas is aimed at those for whom this is an especially difficult time, because of loneliness, or bereavement, or being out of work. And at Christmas it’s impossible not to remember those who we love and see no longer.
On top of this, the Covid uncertainty now throws a pall of gloom over all our preparations. So people came to our service last night, finding a dark corner of the church to sit in: those facing a miserable Christmas dinner for one bunged in the microwave, but also the cancelled, the bankrupt, the disgraced, the betrayed, the addicted, the heartbroken, the disillusioned. Some of us wanted to be there simply because life itself is never easy.
This is what the church looks like. It is one of the few places in our culture where we can bring all that messy stuff in our lives that we don’t know how to fix or process. And — if you will forgive me for sounding like a sermon is coming on — these are the gifts we bring to the manger that are more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is the cracks that let the light in.
Every year, Christians struggle to distinguish between the Christian festival that takes place on December 25, and its secular cousin that travels alongside it. Every year, the cultural mash-up between Santa and Jesus, Rudolph and the angel Gabriel, gets ever harder to distinguish. In 1951, French Catholic clergy burnt an effigy of Santa Claus in front of Dijon cathedral. Extreme, yes. But I get it. Christmas has become far too confused.
Some years ago a little boy came to our Christmas nativity play dressed up as Batman. He sat among the kings and shepherds, the Vicar unclear as to his theological role. This cultural fusion has long been with us, of course. Arguably, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens have formatted our celebrations more than the Christ-child in the manger. “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time,” sang Band Aid. Well, there won’t be snow in Bethlehem either (I just checked). It’s the Middle East for heaven’s sake. Snow is not a big part of the weather. Christmas has become a strange jumble of cultural references. And every year, there will always be yet another dreary hot take in the Guardian to the effect that Christmas is a borrowed pagan festival anyway.
Inevitably, then, Christians seek to maintain a degree of distinctiveness to what they do at this time of year. And there are already differences. For Christians, Christmas begins on the 25th and goes on for several weeks. For non-Christians, it ends on the 25th, or a day or two after. This means we sing our carols at different times. Just as the secular Christmas falls silent, full of that having-spent-too-much, having-drunk-too-much ennui, Christians take up the strain. It’s a problem, because by then many of us are sick of all those bloody carols, having been bombarded with them for weeks.
The answer to this need for distinctiveness is to be found in the minor key, in Isaiah’s proclamation, in the blue of Christmas. While secular Christmas goes on with its relentless up-speak, a Christian Christmas can get to the parts that “Merry Christmas” cannot reach. Technically, the difference is between optimism and hope. Optimism is generally fuelled by denial, a refusal to face the darkness. It’s a kind of holiday from reality. Hope, on the other hand, is a much more belligerent emotion. It stubbornly dwells in the darkness yet refuses to be beaten by it. Have you seen that YouTube clip of a classical music band doing a flash-mob performance of Here Comes the Sun in a Madrid unemployment office? This isn’t cheap optimism. It is light in the darkness. It’s hope.
The Book of Isaiah was written several centuries before the birth of Christ but is clearly its inspiration. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,” the author writes. Then, a few chapters later: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given … and his name shall be called Almighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”. When Isaiah promises that the people who have walked in darkness shall see a great light, St John develops the theme: “a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Whether you see Isaiah as some sort of prediction — the traditional Christian view — or as something that becomes the basis for a later ‘Christian’ understanding of the incarnation, it matters not so much. Isaiah conceptually organises Christmas.
Which is why the light pollution of the secular Christmas fairy lights must be a worry for those of a more religious disposition. You can only see the star if you are prepared to sit in the dark, refusing cheap consolation. Which is all to say that another Covid Christmas, one where the festivities might be once again a little more muted, could be a much better basis for appreciating what the whole thing is supposed to be about. It is at the funeral services I take at this time of year that I find the real Christmas message is easiest to preach — we stay in the dark and look for the light.