BACK in the last millennium, the large crib in one of my parishes remained in place until Candlemas, as it should in all properly ordered churches. But I recall the church cleaners wanted to tidy it away as soon as 6 January came round. “Christmas is over,” they said.
The battle of the crib provided a regular opportunity to teach about the 40 days of the greater Christmas season. Nowadays, it’s a struggle to defend just 12 days of Christmas in a world where, in the shops, the festival is all over by Boxing Day. I’ve noticed, too, that pantomimes and Christmas shows (which used to run throughout January) tend to start much earlier and finish by the second week of the new year.
The gift of tears
SUCH was the case for A Christmas Carol, which ran at the Old Vic until 7 January, but began as early as 12 November. We saw it during Christmas week, and were captivated.
Jack Thorne’s production was first staged in 2017, and has returned to the Old Vic each year since, lockdowns excepted. Traditional Christmas carols are expertly woven into the story, which means that the birth of Jesus gains a profile largely absent from Dickens’s original novella. Scrooge’s redemption was portrayed with touching conviction by Owen Teale.
As the performance ended, the focus was on Tiny Tim’s words, “God bless us, every one.” This poor child invoking a blessing on all people, whatever their wealth or station in life, captured the inverted joy of the Christmas story.
I’d never really connected Tiny Tim with the child of Bethlehem before, but the link seemed unmistakeable. It brought tears to my eyes. But so does almost anything beautiful, these days — is becoming more emotional a sign of advancing years?
I TRAWLED the internet to see what the critics had said about Thorne’s production. “The fable’s warning about treating poverty as if it were a moral vice could hardly be more timely,” I read. Another review commented on the depiction of “the suffocating fear of debt”. The political and social messages were celebrated, while the religious one — despite the carols (and handbells, too) — passed unmentioned.
So, did I imagine this strengthened Christian interpretation? I know nothing about Thorne’s religious convictions, if any, although I believe he is a champion of people with disabilities. But surely his use of carols wasn’t accidental? If he had not intended to make A Christmas Carol more explicitly Christian, then perhaps the gospel story is more deeply embedded in our corporate psyche than we are liable to admit.
Singing is believing
OF COURSE, this may just be a tendency on the part of the professionally religious (me) to see God everywhere, when others do not. Whether on a country walk, or sharing a meal with friends, or reading Four Quartets for the umpteenth time, God seems to me inescapable, woven into daily life.
The divine presence was part of another Christmas experience, also on the south bank of the Thames (although, if God wasn’t to be found in the Christmas Day choral eucharist at Southwark Cathedral, something would have been wrong). Despite the number of visitors, it felt that we were joining a vibrant and relational worshipping community, which is not the experience everywhere. The liturgy and music were splendid; and in his fine sermon the Dean, Andrew Nunn, explored Frankie Laine’s hit from the early 1950s “I Believe” (which still holds the UK record for the most non-consecutive weeks at number one: 18).
Written to cheer up Americans during the Korean War, it expresses a fervent if rather vague belief that “Someone in the great somewhere” hears the smallest prayer, or notices a baby’s cry. This isn’t the fervent faith of a Southern Baptist preacher, nor is it scholastic theology, but offers something more akin to William Wordsworth in a field of daffodils.
Over the years, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Perry Como, the Bachelors, and a host of others have recorded covers of “I Believe”. In 1995, sung by Robson and Jerome, it outsold “Wonderwall” by Oasis, then at the height of their fame; and, as recently as 2020, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe included it in their number-one Christmas album. “I Believe” still speaks to many, even in this supposedly secular age.
Written in the stars
THE link between looking to the sky and pondering the power of the Creator out there “in the great somewhere” isn’t theologically fashionable. Even so, I was struck by the thousands who gathered at Newquay Airport on 9 January to see LauncherOne take off, carried by a modified jumbo jet. Many more thousands watched via YouTube.
It was disappointing that this first launch from the Cornish Spaceport ended in failure, but it was the scale of the crowds which intrigued me. Perhaps they were a tribute to the popular appeal of science, but they seemed drawn also by the awe and wonder which accompanies human observation of the vastness of the universe.
Since our universe is constantly expanding, infinity seems written into the character of creation. The great Somewhere is beyond our comprehension, but inspires us, too. No wonder “I Believe” never seems to go out of fashion.
The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich, and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.