THE Christmases of my childhood were mostly about sitting in a chair. Lucky enough to have grandparents into my adolescence, I remember that, year after year, everyone would gather at our house, in our living room, with extra chairs brought in, so that everyone could sit down.
The Christmas period, in my memory, was full of “sitting” and “chatting”. I liked it. And, because the defining experience of my grandparents’ lives had been getting through the Second World War, very often their conversation was of those times. From stories of my army-electrician grandfather, sending new young apprentices to the wholesalers to purchase “sky hooks” or “elbow grease”, to my other grandfather telling us of his experiences in the RAF, flying over the jungles of Burma, Christmas had a 1940s feel about it, down to the antimacassars on the chairs — even though in real time it was the 1970s.
More than any other time of year, Christmas has its rituals, which give it a time-lag. Much is written about how, if we return to the parental home for Christmas — even as grown-ups, and despite our best intentions — something of the monosyllabic teenager we thought had been banished from our personality repertoire years ago will re-emerge.
SPIRITUALLY, for Christians celebrating the feast of the incarnation, this time-lag can be writ large — which makes celebrating this festival very challenging indeed. In the weeks leading up to 25 December, for example, the Church is completely out of kilter with the rest of society.
Inside the church, it is Advent: no flowers, no Gloria in Excelsis, no parties; and the apocalyptic words of the prophets and the end times ring through the Sunday services. Outside, it is Christmas immediately after Hallowe’en: office parties, regrettable selfies, midnight posts on Instagram, and Aled Jones duetting with himself on a loop-tape in Top Shop.
The challenge lies in the fact that we easily slip into a split spirituality. Our rhetoric about the Christmas story is of astonishment, newness, startling messengers, and an almost unbelieveable birth of actual God actually among us. But our practice is often reduced to “We always sing that,” “We always do that,” “We have to do it that way.” The danger of the split spirituality is more acute at this time of year because, while we proclaim a gospel of unexpectedness and surprise, much of our instinct is to regress and regroup.
We are under pressure, too, to deliver a degree of familiarity for all the people who come to see us only once a year, even if they are gently inebriated at midnight. I am disappointed if I don’t sing either “Hark! The herald angels sing”, or “O come all ye faithful” (and, without fail, even if it is because of mild exhaustion, I always have to bite my lip when we get to “Yea, Lord, we greet thee” — every time, every year).
I am a great fan of the old traditional ways. But it is really important that, alongside this familiarity, there is a commitment to receiving the surprising visitors, and the shocking messages that characterise the Gospel stories of shepherds, magi, angels, and animal sheds.
PERHAPS, then, our primary task at Christmas — especially because all the preparations and carol services are all-consuming — is to prise open the mental and spiritual space to enable us to listen, to be attentive, to notice when those surprises are coming our way; to be aware of the unexpected visitors; to hear the surprising angel songs.
And the key thing is that they are genuine surprises. This year, we were approached by a Muslim group we knew well, asking if there was a way in which we could mark Christmas together — the Christian feast, celebrating the birth of Jesus the Saviour — while, at the same time, acknowledging that Jesus is honoured as a prophet in the Qur’an.
What could we do together that did not dilute either? As a rabbi friend of mine puts it, interfaith gatherings are too often “tea and samosas”, by which she means that an eagerness to be nice can smother more challenging conversations that might change hearts and minds.
IN OUR church, we have, in the past, celebrated a joint Harvest and the Jewish festival of Sukkot, building a sukkah in our garden. We’ve also hosted an iftar during Ramadan, where some of us fasted alongside our Muslim friends for the day. But Christmas? It was not immediately apparent how we might respond to this request.
It was our twenties-and-thirties group who came up with the answer: a meal together, a “peace feast”, to talk about a key theme of Christmas: peace on earth. And so, one evening, 50 young Christians and Muslims met in the church for falafel, to talk and eat and get to know each other, and to discuss questions that they had about each other.
“How realistic is the portrayal of your faith in the media?” they were asked. “What do you think our society celebrates most?” “Do you think we live in a secular society?”
Differences were aired; views exchanged. If they left with a little more understanding of each other than when they arrived, with a few more contacts in their phone, or a determination to keep in touch, then Christmas had done its work.
THIS year, we have been hosting a breakfast every week for people with no recourse to public funds: people in the asylum process, people who are refugees. Week by week, we have got to know each other, telling stories over coffee, toast, and scrambled egg. They are, in the main, very keen to get a job, to contribute, to help themselves. But they are not permitted to work. They are stuck.
And so, from this experience, working with the artist Arabella Dorman, we have salvaged hundreds of discarded clothes from refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos. In the tradition of many memorials, we will hang these clothes in a suspended state in the nave of our church until February. They will form a kind of “exploded life”: stuck, wasting their potential, unable to go home, unable to move on.
And, with Lord Dubs (who came on the Kindertransport in 1939), and the Citizens UK project Safe Passage, we will join our voices to call for the Government to fulfil its promise to welcome unaccompanied child refugees under the Dubs amendment. This would only be a matter of 280 children before Christmas.
Underneath these salvaged, discarded clothes, we will sing the old traditional Christmas carols. All the familiar ones will be there, with all the old words. But we will sing them in the presence of these empty clothes.
The carols then become more than the Victorian folk songs or medieval dances they so often are. By celebrating the astonishing gift of Christ as a baby, they become a protest at the waste of the life that we say was made sacred at Christmas — the waste of potential of the thousands of precious human beings who live in limbo in the camps of our continent. It is one of the defining features of our time, and Christmas is theologically a good time to draw attention to it.
SOME of the clothes we will be living with are unbearably evocative of the people who once owned them. Unpacking them, our volunteers found a babygro covered in teddy bears that, without doubt, belonged to an anonymous little boy, brought across on one of those flimsy boats to an uncertain future.
Embroidered on the little hood was a message that felt as if his parents were sending it direct to us. It expressed something that they knew about their baby son, and hoped for him, and dreamed he would become.
We hope he is safe, we thought, as we read the words on his hood. Not “The Prince of Peace”, but something equally silencing. The echoes of the Gospel story were almost too much to bear as we imagined his parents’ courage, and fear, and the danger their son had been born into: “Prince Charming”.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in London.
Suspended is at St James’s, Piccadilly, from 14 December to 8 February.