Madoc Cairns says Catholics should have no fear of an unhappy Christmas.
It will all end in tears.
Somehow, at some point, some- one in my family will get up- set on Christmas. Not that anything will have gone wrong, particularly. Far from it.
It’s something innate to the season, an ambient mood unfolding as presents are unboxed, the day slipping towards disaster, gift by gift, dish by dish.
If there’s a year you think you’ve dodged the emotional bullet: think again. That just means the one weeping into their brussels sprouts this year will be you.
As much as the immediate cause of our winter discontent may evade description, the ultimate reasons seem clear to me. We’ve just spent the last month being put through the financial and psychological wringer.
Trying to cram a month’s worth of work, gift-buying and last-minute-socialising into a few weeks would be daunting in any weather; now consider it’s pitch-black and freezing for three-quarters of the (so-called) day. If you haven’t hit the appropriately festive pitch of psychic agony yet, just switch on the TV.
For as long as I can remember, people have complained that Christmas has been commercialised. It’s certainly true the festival today honours the gods of the market more than the birth of the Nazarene.
But the most common symptom of that – the customary pinch of incense, if you like – is something not evidently commercial at all. Our post-Christian, post-modern, post-mortem Christmas Spirit is about something much stranger than commerce. It’s about being happy.
It’s everywhere. On billboards the length and breadth of the country, sappy-eyed celebrants flash hideous idiot grins at innocent commuters. On social media, on television, on print and radio, we’re surrounded by domestic happiness; besieged by it. Loving families accost us in the streets and in the shopping centres. Beaming kiddies and smirking pensioners march out of cinema screens.
To paraphrase Trotsky, you might not be interested in The Christmas Spirit. But the Christmas Spirit is interested in you.
Oppressive, omnipresent, brooking no opposition, the Christmas Spirit controls every aspect of our national life.
It’s even suborned the churches. And it makes Christmas almost unbearable. There’s no way for any normal person – any normal family – to match the frenzied goodwill we’re submerged in each December. The purity of the ideal excludes all imitation; the idea of happiness sabotages our shot at the reality.
The Christmas Spirit might be annoying, but is it really anti-Christian? Isn’t Christmas supposed to be a celebration? Isn’t the time we spend with our families an earthly emblem of a sacred truth; that God, through the incarnation, entered into our mundane, everyday life, family and all, and left them transformed?
Isn’t the secular Spirit of Christmas an expression, however malformed, of the true meaning of the season: peace on earth, good will to all men?
Sort of. For one thing, I’d argue, Christmas is about joy rather than happiness; the two are related but distinct. But, at a level yet more fundamental than that, people who think Christmas is about being happy have it almost exactly backwards.
Advent, Christmas Eve, the Nativity, the whole nine yards and eight days – is bound up, very closely and tightly, with the obligation to be unhappy.
Joy is just one side of the advent coin. An old Christmas prayer – Psalm 110 – hints at what the other side might contain. Ex utero ante luciferum genui te, it runs: from the womb before the day star I begot thee. Ante luciferum. Before the dawn.
That’s where hope begins: in the dark. In an important sense, that’s where we stay. Like the ancient Israelites, we’ve got the promise, but not the proof. We’re seeing by faith right now, for the span of our three-score years and ten; watching in the dark.
Waiting for the lord. And waiting for the Lord isn’t easy.
Just read the Old Testament. Israel was promised a Messiah, but not when they’d arrive, or what form they’d take when they did. Among cultures where gods were tangible, straightforwards and useful – this idol helps your crops; this one wins your battles – Israel was asked to wait for a God that seemed anything but.
In an age when gods were innumerable and interchangeable, Israel had a single, jealous God, insistently universal, passionately particular.
Living ante luciferum, – before the dawn – in order to say ‘yes’ to God, they also had to say ‘no’. They had to refuse. Refuse convenience, refuse consolation, refuse any satisfaction with the way the world seemed to be, with other laws and other gods.
In that original advent, over long centuries, Israel became expert in the art of dissatisfaction, eyes trained for absence, always missing something that wasn’t quite there yet.
Christian discipleship is, in this sense, a kind of continuous advent, an expectancy worked out on God’s time, not ours. The discomfort that involves – the realisation that we’re insufficient, unfinished, that we’re not the centre of the universe – is a kind of grace.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, said Our Lord; blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who aren’t happy, in other words; who won’t be sat- isfied with anything this world can give. Blessed are the unhappy?
Maybe not; but certainly blessed are those who see through the cellophane promises of personal fulfilment we get sold this festive season; who don’t pour libations for the Spirit of Christmas; who disbelieve the therapeutic mythology touted by the markets and the media.
Your relationships; your belongings; your own self – even if these could make you happy, they could never make you complete.
“At the center of the human heart is the longing for an absolute good,” wrote Simone Weil, “a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world”.
The Spirit of Christmas isn’t entirely wrong: Christmas is a time for family and friends, gifts and parties.
But it’s also a time to focus on that longing, to keep hungering and thirsting for something we can’t see or hear or touch; to stay dissatisfied.
This Christmas might end in tears, too. But the world won’t.
Madoc Cairns is a staff writer at The Tablet.