“Isn’t it funny that at Christmas something in you gets so lonely for – I don’t know what exactly, but it’s something that you don’t mind so much not having at other times.” That’s a line from Kate L. Bosher; I have to admit I don’t know who that is, and thirty seconds googling didn’t help much either, but she’s right. For a season of peace on earth and goodwill to all men, the days around December 25th always seem to be surrounded by a strange sense of melancholy; a melancholy dancing with hope and joy, maybe, but melancholy nonetheless. Or maybe it’s just me and my fondness for Christmas songs that don’t feel like Christmas songs – Fairytale of New York, of course, and the image I’m trying to convey was done far better in the video for It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas.
There’s a streak of – sadness? darkness? – running through the Christmas story from the start. Teenage girl finds out she’s pregnant outside of wedlock, and despite it being extenuating circumstances, her husband-to-be is on the verge of divorcing her quietly until he undergoes a religious experience that makes him stick with her, thus potentially putting both their reputations in the toilet. The baby’s born in exactly the wrong place. They’re visited by shepherds, who at the time were considered to be liars and theives and generally disreputable – chavs, basically. Later on they get visited by a bunch of astrologers from another country, who screw everything up by alerting a mad bad king to the existence of a child who’s a political threat. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are forced to become asylum seekers in Egypt, while the king decides to get rid of the perceived threat by killing a town-full of innocent children. Lose the teatowels and the cardboard crowns and it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs.
And yet, even if Christmas is a time when we become more aware of the things we lack and the things we’ve lost, it also puts that into perspective. A few days before the 25th, a bunch of us were messing around and dressing as hair metallers and singing cheesey rock songs, and there was something about the whole sense of lunacy that made me appreciate how cool my friends and colleagues are. Being a Sunday School teacher is about 80% trying to make sure a bunch of 10 year olds don’t accidentally mutilate themselves, but seeing them dressed as sheep at the carol service is always strangely heartwarming, even if you’re expecting one of them to take a swandive off the stage at some point. Spending time with the family. Eating about twenty Christmas meals. Feeling part of an incredibly geeky community as the internet tries to figure out how the Tenth Doctor will regenerate. You’re aware of the things you’d like, the things you need, the things you miss, but you can’t help but be grateful for what you’ve got.
The whole idea behind the Christmas story is that a divine being becomes human, and gets caught up in all the hurt and dirt and suffering and joy and beauty of human existance – Immanuel, God with us, it’s in all the carols if you look for it. That’s why the story of the baby in the manger somehow resonates with the scuzzier lyrics of Fairytale. Sometimes life sucks, but sometimes it’s beautfiul, and sometimes, especially at Christmas, it somehow manages to be both at once. It’s a hug of a season, even if you’re not sure if that hug is happy or sad. And that’s why I love Christmas, and hopefully always will.
Just don’t get me started on new year…