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Hopes under the tree

20 December 2013

"CHRISTMAS waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful," Norman Vincent Peale said, and his words will either make you misty-eyed or nauseous. So what is Christmas about? If Christmas does what it says on the tin, then what should it say on the tin?

One reality of Christmas is the longing not for a saviour, but a dream. I sit with a woman who speaks wistfully; she wants to get back to how Christmas used to be. But, as her story unfolds, it is clear that it never was "how it used to be" - she is longing for something she has never known. Like everyone else, she is making her plans for Christmas, and finding that each year they get more complicated. She has the feeling that things should stay the same for Christmas, but somehow they don't.

Life is change, and while we can forget this for 11 months, come December and the family negotiations, it is all brought into sharp relief - without the relief. Families change, and sometimes painfully.

Stephen Fry has written: "Christmas, to a child, is the first terrible proof that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive." The day never quite matches up to the hype. Better the presents wrapped under the tree than the presents opened. Better the talk of a brand new world than the old-world reality of the day itself.

The annual realisation strikes: people are not all suddenly getting on with each other. This day is continuous with, and dependent on, the year that has been.

Christmas is also about dread. "Christmas is a holiday that persecutes the lonely, the frayed, and the rejected," the journalist Jimmy Cannon wrote. But others feel dread as well. A former colleague of mine had to leave the shop floor when the subject came up: still awash with bad memories of Christmas conflict in the home, she hated talk of it, which did not make her December coffee-breaks easy, or her walks down the decorated aisles.

Yet, for many, the dream lives on - the dream of something mysteriously wonderful: a day when "the hopes and fears of all the years" find joyous resolution. There is a Christmas inside them that never quite happens. Like an anxiety dream, they are trying to get back there each year, but never quite making it: they always find it spoiled, but are always willing to try again.

The little boy inside me knows both the dread and the longing that the story of the birth, though wonderful, may struggle to address. So, this year, I ask the boy to let go of both his fear and expectation, to calm the forces within. Instead, I seek inner neutrality, an intermediate state between emotion and the divine.

On the Christmas tin - maybe as the innkeeper wrote, above the stable - I would write "Space to let." Happy Christmas.

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