OUR Christmas ritual begins late on Christmas Eve with a luxurious fish pie, eaten on our return from the midnight service, as a prelude to parcel-wrapping. A few years ago, we returned from church to find that the cooker had not only died but deposited an oil slick on top of the fish pie. It was not a good beginning to the festivities.
We expect so much of Christmas. Things need to happen seamlessly and be done in the way they have always been done, irrespective of the present set of circumstances. We want our particular rituals to affirm us and our lives, both past and present, to make us merry and project happiness. Things not going to plan can quickly become the breaking point for fragile family relationships.
Added to this is the enormous financial strain which our expectations place on us. Last year, The Independent predicted that 7.9 million people would have trouble meeting their regular financial obligations by January, and the majority of households in the UK would be unable to clear their Christmas debt before April. Only 14 per cent of those polled had started saving for Christmas in the summer.
Financial anxiety adds to existing family tensions. When money is short, every word of criticism from a difficult relative is felt as irreversible judgement. Excited children, giving voice to their own expectations, add to their parents’ anxiety about judgement, bringing with it the fear of failure.
Some parents will want to “make up” to their children for their own absences during the year, owing to work or other life demands. Or they may feel guilty about some other perceived parental shortcoming. Children sense these anxieties, and may even use them to manipulate the present-giving to their own ends.
These scenarios play themselves out to a greater or lesser extent in most families. We all wish it could be different. We promise ourselves that this year it will be different.
BUT wasn’t Christmas always going to be like this? The Christ-child is born into an unplanned situation. A massive exercise in bureaucracy, whose purpose would have been lost on them, forces the couple to journey to a distant place where accommodation has not been arranged, and all that remains on offer is rudimentary and dirty. Given the distance and shortage of accommodation, friends and family are unlikely to be around to support the mother during labour. To add to this anxiety, money will have to be found to pay the newly imposed tax.
At the heart of the incarnational mystery is Christ coming to us in the muddle and mess of the present set of unforeseen circumstances, and in all the tensions that arise from it. He comes as floods devastate homes, or in unexpected bereavement, or when the whole family gets the flu. He comes in the inconveniences and postponements that these situations create.
He is particularly present when things are not the way they should be, or once were. He is intimately connected with the disappointment, frustration, and sadness of our not being able to recreate the Christmas of our childhood, or perhaps its opposite, nor the kind of magic that Dylan Thomas evokes in A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
THOMAS is not really talking about magic. Neither is he concerned with happiness in the way we associate that word with Christmas today. He is celebrating the particular kind of peace which comes with allowing for the simplicity that is at the heart of the miracle of the incarnation, and hence of Christmas.
We know that peace only in simple moments, when our minds are momentarily stilled, free of immediate anxieties about ourselves and about Christmas. Peace makes itself felt in the most ordinary of moments: while standing in a queue or waiting at traffic lights, or while preparing potatoes and sprouts to go with the turkey, or in time given to really listen to someone — especially, perhaps, to the difficult relative.
All of these moments, and the peace that they bring, provide us with a place to deposit the unrealistic expectations that we have of Christmas and of ourselves. They embody Christ’s humility, and the peace that gives meaning and purpose to the season. It is the only present worth asking for.
The Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh is a priest in the Church in Wales and the author of In Such Times: Reflections on living with fear (Wipf & Stock).
For free confidential advice on managing debt, visit www.nationaldebtline.org. For help with anxiety, see Anxiety UK, visit www.anxiety.org.uk.