If anything proves just how wobbly our commemoration of Christmas has become, it’s the state of our town centres just a few days before December 25th. Are they normally this crowded? Are they normally this hysterical? Never mind people forgetting the true meaning of Christmas, it seems that a lot of people have forgotten the true meaning of basic phrases like “Excuse me” and “Sorry”. And yes, I’ll name names, in my experience HMV is the worst. Sorry but there you go. And you mate, you keep swinging those bags at crotch level, that’ll end well.
The whole thing is a bizarrely British riot in slow motion with added queues. Teenagers sauntering around sucking the drawstrings on their hoodies, adults drifting from shop to shop with stuck-up, joyless expressions on their faces. ‘This really isn’t what it’s all about’, I tell myself as I willingly contribute money and grumpiness to this orgy of consumerist materialism.
At least the food hall has had the decency to play Springsteen’s cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.
My favourite carol is O Little Town Of Bethlehem, but it’s partly notable for its modern inaccuracy if you try linking it to a modern town at Christmas time: “How still we see thee lie”? Not a chance, the shops are open till 11. “Dark streets”? Nope, look up there, there’s a neon waving Santa. “Deep and dreamless sleep”? Everyone’s too stressed to sleep, and those that aren’t are having nightmares about being eaten by a reindeer as a thousand falsetto elves giggle maniacally.
The real Bethlehem has real problems, of course. Nowadays it’s a Palestinian city, part of the occupied territories. Politically it’s a potential flashpoint and even the Church of the Nativity is administered by three different Christian denominations, leading to periodic arguments and/or fistfights. The church desperately needs preservation work, although getting its custodians to work together on this is proving impossible, and while its presence should make the area a key piece of tourist real estate, the political situation means that the majority of locals don’t get to benefit from this due to tour parties being strictly ushered onto safer routes. The whole situation feels like a metaphor for the region in general.
But if that’s the case, maybe we need to listen to the carol again. “Yet in thy dark streets shineth/The ever-lasting light” – it’s one of the key messages of Christmas, God made human and becoming a part of history. And for that to mean something, it has to take place in really dark streets – where political violence threatens to kick off at any moment, or where someone might get into a punch-up during the January sales.
Then there’s my favourite line: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I saw fear while doing my Christmas shopping, and that’s not a joke – heck, someone in a queue was talking about her boyfriend violently smashing things up. We may all go consumerist at this time of year, but it just leaves us feeling tired, stressed and inadequate. Where’s the hope?
The hope is in Bethlehem. Maybe not now, but definitely 2,000 years ago. And, through that, it’s incarnated in our cities, villages and towns even today. And sometimes we can hear it over the sound of crowds and cash registers; a still small voice in the midst of chaos, a Christmas whispering in the dark.