Sunday 15 December 2019

Bringing Christmas Alive: Past. Present and Future

Last weekend I was consumed by a deep and heavy cold. I’m sure I wasn’t the best company and was probably wasn’t entirely in the Christmas spirit. I hope I wasn’t too Scrooge like. On Saturday night I did witness a beautiful joyful annual ritual. As I sat in the chair, feeling somewhat sorry for myself, I watched Sue and her daughter Lucy put their Christmas tree up and take out the many decorations. Everyone seemed to have a story, some had even belonged to Sue’s grandma, and others were her mothers, several more had been collected as her own children had grown up. I thought how lovely it was to connect those decorations to at least three generations. I wondered to myself if Lucy would keep up this tradition when she begins to create a family of her own, I suspect that she will.

I find it lovely how this simple annual ritual has an ability to connect the present with the past and the future, those three vital spirits of Christmas. Each telling its own story and each coming to life at the same time.

It brought me back to the quotation that I had ended last weeks "blogspot" with. Those beautiful words of Mr Scrooge toward the end of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

In the story Scrooge beautifully portrays the power at the heart of Christmas, how love can redeem even the most lost. It emerges through the journey of integration that he is taken on, of the past, present and future; of both the light and the dark of life; of hope and despair. During the telling of “A Christmas Carol” he was visited by three spirits, the ghosts of the past, present and yet to be.

“The Ghost of Christmas Past” forced him to not only look back at his past but to relive it, to truly feel it. He was made to remember what Christmas had once meant, before cynicism had taken hold. It showed him both the happiness and the sadness present in his past, there was no sugar coating. It is of course a true humbug to pretend that all the sadness in life is washed away at Christmas time. And yet while there is sadness present in all life there is also love and joy, there is much to be grateful for. It is the “The Ghost of Christmas Past” that revealed this to Scrooge.

As I recall the past Christmases I have known there is much joy, but there is also deep sadness too. This is life. I am at peace with my past these days as I feel it is truly a part of me. I feel these former ghosts, that once haunted me, are now fully integrated deep in the soul of my being. Those ghosts are a part of me.

“The Ghost of Christmas Present” showed Scrooge the full picture of the world in which he lived, especially at Christmas time. He saw the warts and the beauty spots too. It revealed the affluence as well as the want. It showed Christmas being enjoyed in far off places, on the high seas in lighthouses, it showed every heart being warmed by the season. This surely touched Scrooge, as his heart was warmed by the universal love, present in all life, regardless of material circumstances, expressed by the spirit of Christmas.

It is vital that we see the world truly with the awakened eye. To see life as it actually is, for the awakened eye is a compassionate eye. The world in which we live today is as mixed as the world of Dickens. We see poverty and want everywhere. Homelessness is a terrible blight of our time. Did you know that there are as many foodbanks in this country as McDonald’s restaurants? A terrible statistic don’t you think. And yet this isn’t the whole picture, there is a great deal of joy in coming together, often shown in times of trouble, people coming together in love, people helping and offering service to one another in a variety of ways,

“The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be” brought the reality of Scrooge’s own lonely and un-mourned death to him. People either did not care or actually cheered his passing. All that he owned was quickly stripped from him; it meant nothing in the end. They even took the curtains from his bed. When the spirit showed him his grave, he did not recognise it as his own, he tried to deny it, but the spirits finger pointed from the grave back to him. This terrified Scrooge who cried out that he was a changed man, as he begged for mercy clutching the spirits robe. And then from his lips came those immortal words, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all three will strive within me. I will not shut out the lesson that they teach.”

Scrooge became the Christmas hero because he brought the reality of what Christmas is all about to life; through him the spirit of Christmas came to life. It is the same for everyone, regardless of time and place. For surely Christmas is about honouring life in its wholeness; surely it is about reconciliation in its completeness. It is about giving birth to the love within each of by reconciling our past in our present and therefore creating a future inspired by love.

We are told that to truly live we must live in the moment. Now while I am not going to contradict this,but I do not think that this is not enough. I have come believe that the key to truly living alive is that rather than simply passively living in the moment, we must bring the present alive, by integrating our whole lives, past, present and future.

Christmas is about the past, present and future integrated as one. This is the love we must give birth to on Christmas morning, born in mangers of our hearts.

To truly bring the moment to life requires each of us to integrate the whole of our lives. This is especially true at Christmas time, in fact this is the beautiful Christmas paradox.

This all got me thinking about this great paradox of Christmas, it is found right at the core of the season. At Christmas we celebrate newness and rebirth and yet at the same time we revere tradition more than at any other time of year perhaps. Just think of all the traditions that you feel you must engage in just to make it Christmas. Christmas is a beautiful mix of the old and the new, inseparably intertwined in one gift-wrapped package, ready for us to open and enjoy. Christmas is newness, first and foremost, a celebration of birth and rebirth. It is a season of preparing, of focusing all that is within us on making ready the birthplace of the Christ child within the mangers of our own hearts. Isn’t this what happened to Mr Scrooge, thus heralding a new future.

Every Christmas is a chance to integrate the whole of our lives. We recreate our pasts through traditions. We hear and sing again the same carols, they stir something deep within us. How many of us engage in the same ritual that Sue and Lucy did, tenderly and lovingly unpacking and displaying cherished decorations. Don’t they bring to mind former days, former joys and sad memories too, especially as we remember lost loved ones. What about the cards that we write and send, posting greetings to distant and not-so-distant friends and loved ones, remembering all those who make up our network of mutual love. Even the most secular amongst us participate in ceremonies, keeping alive the traditions of Christmas that are so rich and meaningful in this season.

Christmas is a beautiful blend of the old and the new. We need the old to truly give birth to the new, it is a part of who we are. In order to give birth to the love waiting in the mangers of our hearts, this Advent season. Advent is about waiting to give birth to this love. How do we do this, well by following the lead of Mt Scrooge, by simply integrating the past, the present and the future.

In so doing we will give birth to that love during the moment of magic on Christmas morning.

Here is my favourite adaptation of a "Christmas Carol"

Sunday 8 December 2019

The Spirit of Christmas in the Secular and the Sacred

On the 22nd December 1946 George Bernard Shaw wrote a letter to the “The Reynolds News” stating:

“Christmas is for me simply a nuisance. The mob supports it as a carnival of mendacity, gluttony, and drunkenness. Fifty years ago, I invented a society for the abolition of Christmas. So far I am the only member. That is all I have to say on the subject.”

To which editor responded:

“Mr. Shaw’s campaign has met with serious obstacles. The public read his books and went to his plays, but they read Dickens, too. They couldn’t be made to stop singing carols, lighting up Christmas trees, making presents, and feeling more than usually amiable toward their relatives, friends, and the world in general. Many of them paid attention to Mr. Shaw’s ideas about other things, including vegetarianism and Fabian socialism, but they would not pay attention to his ideas about Christmas. His failure is as apparent to him as it is to the rest of us.”

I do love this editors response. It was written just days after the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Frank Capra had premiered. I wonder what Shaw thought of this film and the spirit that flows through it. The film was a flop when it was first released and yet today, along with one of the many versions of “A Christmas Carol” has become an embodiment of the Christmas spirit.

By the way Shaw is not the only well-known figure who sought the abolition of Christmas. It was once banned in England. During the period of the Commonwealth, following the English Civil War, the Puritans in Parliament wanted the people to focus purely on Sunday as the holy day and wanted rid of all the other festivals, such as Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, which they considered both heathen and Catholic. Christmas became Christ-tide. In 1647 they passed an ordinance abolishing all three festivals. That said as much as they attempted to enforce them the laws were hard to maintain and the people continued to celebrate these feast in the ways they always had. The measures were completely swept away following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when all legislation passed between 1642 and 1660 was made null and void.

Now of course theologically speaking the Puritans were quite right in most of their objections about Christmas and the time that it was held. That said Christmas was never a celebration of theological correctness, of biblical literalism, of doctrinal purity of historical factuality.

Christmas as we understand it today and certainly its spirit has a deep and rich history and has been fed by many traditions both ancient and modern. Christmas is for everyone, in every time and place. It matters not what name we give this festival of the heart that comes alive at this time of year. It matters little to me the variety of roots that formed it either; they certainly do not diminish its power. Quite the opposite actually the universality of it enhances my faith in that universal and eternal spirit that I name God, that light of hope that finds a way through in the darkness of winter and warm our hearts and hearths, that runs through it.

The heart of Christmas is what many call “the Christmas spirit”. And what is “the Christmas spirit”? well it’s joy, it is the reassessment that at the core of life is a goodness, that there is a deep warmth in human relations, that we are capable of coming together in love, something that is beautifully portrayed in the film that was released just days before Shaw’s letter was published, “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

“The Christmas spirit” reminds us that we are one people and that we are here to offer our gifts of service to one another. The stories we tell and the activities we engage in remind us of this spirit and brings it to life. Sadly though its only for a season, if only it could become a spirit for our life times.

Sue and myself went to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the big screen last Advent. It worked its magic. It got into those places that it needed to. It was beautiful to sit there with so many other people, the rest complete strangers, and allow the magic to get deep into the core of my being. It opened me up, got into the marrow of my soul as I relived so many feelings that I have experienced over the year and so many other times throughout my life. I was visited by all the spirits of this beautiful season, as I re-experienced many emotions. As we left I felt that once again something had changed deep within me. It reawakened me to the spirit of the season at a time I really needed it, as I was getting somewhat stressed with the work. The spirit came to life as I laughed and connected and spent the last half hour with tears rolling down my face as I remembered so many people who have touched my life, and experiences that have affected me deeply, all those complex emotions I have felt throughout my life and once again that year. I felt the spirit of the season come to life in my heart that can get lost in the tinsel, the lights and the ever heavier traffic, so often at this time of year. I was touched beautifully by the spirit of Christmas.

What are your favourite Christmas films? What brings you into the spirit of the season? Go and see one on the big screen if you can. It’s wonderful to go and see a classic film on the big screen and to do so in company, sharing that experience with folk that you love. If not there are many channels dedicated to them these days. Take time to take some of them in. Sue and myself will be going to Home in Manchester once again, just before Christmas, to see "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen.

It is not just in the films though that the "the Christmas spirit" comes to life through. There are of course the Christmas songs, whether they be the carols we sing or the multitude of songs played on the radio. I wonder what your favourite carols are. What about the supposedly secular ones, they bring the spirt to life in each of us too. What are your favourites? The ones you never get bored of. The ones that sing “glad tidings of comfort and joy” to you and all. The stories and the songs may not be ones of reason and fact, but then again life is more than merely this. These songs bring to life a spirit in each of us.

The spirit of Christmas does something to us, there is a magic to it, it is more than reason and fact. It can’t be quantified and it cannot be measured, but it surely can be experienced and known, but only if you let it have its way with you. We just have to risk greeting strangers more openly and warmly.

So don’t go Bah Humbug at those homes that are overly decorated. Be inspired by that same spirit and multiply the joy. Go decorate your own homes and hearts with light and colour and joy. Be freer, be kinder, be more generous abandon yourself to the spirit of the season and you know what you might just carry that on into the new year and beyond.

The magic of Christmas is there in its spirit. For it is this that enables us to open up to our true nature. Christmas is wonderful, powerful and special because it helps us to become more comfortable about being open and giving. Its spirit helps us to give the goodness that is waiting to come to life, within each of us and that is why we love it so much.

The Spirit of Christmas is one of joy. It reminds us of the goodness that is at the core of life, symbolised in the prospect that a baby, a special infant, or any new born, that has the potential to bring us the saving power of love to life once more.

This is the spirit waiting to come to life once more. The time is now, it is upon us. May we be open to it. May we fulfil its promise. May we sing to one another “glad tiding of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, glad tidings of comfort and joy.

So I will not be joining Mr Shaw’s club. I believe and love this time of year more and more as time goes by. I know I need this spirit to open my heart and to try and make it Christmas every day.

Instead of Mr Shaw I will follow Mr Dicken’s in the spirit of good old Ebenezer Scrooge

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

I believe in the Spirit of Christmas and that little bit more than Christmas, than everything,that can be found in everything..

So let’s journey on through this Christmas season and truly open our hearts and engage in its spirit. May our hearts open wider, at this the heart of the year. May our experiences deepen as we remember to slow down as we rush through the business of our days. May we know the true gifts of the season; gifts of love, compassion and acceptance. May we bring the spirit of the season alive and in so doing learn to make it Christmas in the days yet to come.