THE shortest day, the winter solstice, is always an important date in the calendar for hobby social anthropologists, who take great glee in posting stuff on social media about “the true meaning of Yule”. Not even Spinal Tap singing of the Druids that “No one knows who they were or what they were doing” seems to give pause for thought to our chums over at #SpiritualNotReligious.
Ten years or so back, I found myself at Stonehenge for the winter solstice with my pal, Bender Dave. Invited by a hippie lady to try hugging the stones in order to connect with earth energy, I reluctantly had a go. The main feeling I got while hugging the stones was acute embarrassment. I remain an Englishman at all times.
Soap opera shop
MY WIFE, my stepdaughter, and I did the big Christmas food-shop at Morrisons in Leominster. At 2.30 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, a sizeable percentage of the population of north-west Herefordshire and east Radnorshire were also doing that very thing.
Panic set in. I picked up ricotta rather than mascarpone for my coconut ice. (Really. Try it.) Someone forgot to get a jar of mincemeat. The only streaky bacon left was smoked. It had to be faced — the whole thing was pointless. Christmas was already ruined.
As we unloaded the trolley on to the conveyor belt, and continued to discuss who had done what, who should’ve done what, and what might still be salvaged from the situation if only everyone would listen to me, the young man behind the till started to hum the theme from EastEnders. I shall draw a veil over the rest of the afternoon.
All in the waiting
THE following morning was Sunday: I would have pulled the bedclothes over my head but for one horrifying circumstance — my morning ear-worm was Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”. Clearly, the time for reflection had passed, and the moment had come to act.
Church wasn’t happening until 6.30; so I spent the day cooking, tidying up in the face of imminent guests, and listening to 6 Music. My wife was singing in the choir; so I walked across to the church at 6.25, happy and relaxed and looking forward to the carol service. I had forgiven everyone for their appalling behaviour yesterday. I had even forgiven them for claiming that it was all my fault.
The choir sang beautifully, and I admired my friends in the congregation who regularly read the lessons, which, I reckoned, must be quite a nerve-racking experience.
My wife doesn’t just sing: on Friday, the organist for the Christmas Eve five-o’clock crib service had dropped out, and she was asked to step up. I don’t think she’d mind my calling her the St Andrew’s fifth-choice organist. She’s good, but she’s rusty; so she had been practising hard for a few days.
After the carol service, Steve the Vicar suggested that — in order to give her one less thing to think about — I might take my wife’s place in reading at the midnight communion the next day. I was pleased to be asked. Very. But nervous, too. Public speaking: that’s what I do. I’ve done scary gigs for years — I’ve run a creative writing workshop for five-year-olds, introduced hip-hop to an Over-80s club in Morecambe, and sung “Girl From Ipanema” at a bikers’ event in Wrexham. I have no fear. But this is new. This is serious.
I am 60, and I have never before read the lesson in church.
ON CHRISTMAS Eve, The Guardian printed a piece by Julian Baggini about how we all know all that the stable/manger/star stuff can’t be true — unlike the solstice thing — but never mind, let’s all sit and watch EastEnders and just have a laugh anyway.
My wife played beautifully at the Christmas Eve crib service, the rust knocked away by practice. More people come each year to fill the church: parents and toddlers, proud grandparents, and family members returning home for Christmas, hearing again the story of the divine made human, born not in triumph, but into destitution.
Dozens of children lit candles, and walked around the extraordinary medieval building that our congregation has looked after for a thousand years. Friends and neighbours, Leavers and Remainers, we sang together, “The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.” A moment of beauty and high seriousness: I’m not sure it would have been improved by Dr Baggini rocking up at the end and saying, “But don’t forget, children, it’s all ‘a preposterous fairytale’.”
I grew increasingly nervous across the course of the evening. Isaiah, chapter nine, verses 2, 6, and 7 — that’s a lot of scripture for a first-timer to read. I am still slightly surprised (but very pleased) to find myself here. Am I now a respectable pillar of society? A village elder?
Respectable elder or not, it was a wonderful experience. Steve the Vicar gave a scorching sermon about where light can be found in dark times; and, to top it all, we started singing the last verse of “O come, all ye faithful” on the stroke of midnight.
Christmas Day, and the waiting was over. He is here. Now we can begin again.
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.