Brendan Hoban: A season to reawaken our childhood wonder

A season to reawaken our childhood wonder

Western People 21.12.2021

As we said last year, Christmas won’t be a ‘normal’ Christmas this year. As if we need to be reminded! Fewer again will make it home and families, usually relaxing together around a Christmas dinner, will have to make do with, at best, some ‘facetime’ or an awkward, stilted chat on the phone with the rest of the family officially eavesdropping on the conversation. Christmas, we’ll be thinking, was never meant to be like this.

Even for those addicted to Christmas shopping, the experience is strange with a blizzard of face masks reminding us that COVID-19 and its difficult children is ever-present wherever people gather. In the strangest of ways, the virus is again robbing us even of the most innocent of traditional Christmas experiences.

Robbing us too of the multiple traditions of Christmas time: gathering around the crib on Christmas night; going to Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day; meeting friends for a drink; exchanging gifts with those we love.

In a sense all we’ll have left are our memories of the way it used to be and of the might-have-beens of the Christmas of 2021. All dressed up, as we say, and nowhere to go.

There’s little appetite around for Christmas cheer. It’s almost as if the viral atmosphere of living through a pandemic has festered into a studied resentment against the sights and the sounds of Christmas. And yet, and yet, Christmas is, well, Christmas.

So, despite the limitations, we need to fashion the season within the limits of what’s possible and by accepting what simply isn’t possible (or wise). It will mean redefining the personal, family and community rites of Christmastime, traditions invariably remembered and repeated every year. Practices that have become hallowed by repetition and time. People we remember; places we go; the little pilgrimages we usually make that are significant just for ourselves.

Every Christmas I visit my parents’ grave – to remember and give thanks. It is the very least I might do. Every Christmas I read Seamus Heaney’s poem called ‘Clearances.’ Heaney wrote it in memory of his mother. In it he remembers the parish priest anointing his mother as she died, family members around her bed, some answering the prayers, some crying. As with a childhood memory of the poet watching his mother peel potatoes at the kitchen-sink, Heaney recaptures a memorable moment between mother and child, a togetherness, a kind of communion, a closeness that Heaney would forever remember. His words on the enduring bond between mothers and their children provide us with a vocabulary to remember.

Christmas is a strange time. It has a funny way of creating an empty space around us. Despite the usual hype, Christmas has a way of stripping our lives down to the essentials. And we find ourselves re-living again in memory the exquisitely personal and, for most, happy days of Christmases of the past.

Because Christmas is the great tabernacle of memories. Memories, good and bad but never indifferent. Memories that bring a warmth and a happiness with them and memories too that can leave us desolate and cold. Hopes remembered, dreams relived, that middle ground between the possible and the actual re-tilled over and over until we begin to see the fruits of our lives scattered around our feet.

And as we move through the Christmas season, powerful forces can begin to stir within us. We can feel at once elated and depressed, happy and sad. Something within us wants to open the great tabernacle of memories and hug them to bits. Something else wants to close that tabernacle tight, to hold memory at a distance.

Life is like that. Loss too. And at Christmas, the clearance in our lives is such that the intensity returns, and we sometimes wonder how we’ll manage, as the cliche puts it, to ‘get over the Christmas’.

Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice. Take yourself off for a quiet walk. Just by yourself. Your own time. Empty your mind of all the hassle. As if, like a child, you are letting the water under your feet settle into a little puddle so that you can see a bit of yourself in it. Letting the bustle fade into a redeeming silence.

Or sit somewhere and look out at the world as it rages and races past. Find a quiet corner where the ghosts of Christmases past come to the surface. Find a clear space where you can hear what life is saying to you.

In a strange kind of way Christmas is a clearance when we move silently and respectfully though memories of the past, trials of the present and dreams for the future. Then quietly, reflectively we can begin to place the hopes and the dreams in the context of where we are and where you we are likely to be. And, as the harsh realities of life begin to impinge, allow yourself to feel the edge of regret and failure – that’s part of the lot of humankind too.

We may find that it’s as if we’ve been shuffling our way through a dense forest and then suddenly we are in a calm, silent clearance where we can get a more reflective sense of who we are, of what’s really important, of who and what really matter.

It’s as if, in some peculiar way, we have brought ourselves into our own presence, where we can find a clearance, a perspective to allow ourselves to distinguish between what’s important and what doesn’t matter all that much.

Wouldn’t that make a lovely gift that each of us can give ourselves this Christmas?

I wish all of my readers the blessings of the Christmas season.




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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban: A season to reawaken our childhood…


    I remember asking our teacher Pete Connolly what the opening lines of Four Quartets meant and he answered with a pirouette: “You still don’t know?”

    Well, listening to them in the key of regret they glimmer into new meaning:

    What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.

    We just do not know what might have been, or where the paths not taken would have led. We imagine we missed out on something wonderful, paradise just round the corner. But all that is imagination, as evanescent as last night’s forgotten dream. Brood neither on the past that was nor on the past that wasn’t, for

    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    We have ended in the narrow pass of this present, which is also the place we begin anew. Seize the hour, strike out with new energy, borne up on wings of hope and joy.

    Old Possum has more mundane consolation in one of his plays:

    Success is relative. It is what we can make
    Of the mess we have made of things.

    Even if all our weaving is for naught, like Penelope’s, it still honours our Creator and ourselves to live fully in the present he accords us.

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan Hoban: A season to reawaken our childhood wonder.

    Thank you Brendan for that. Your lovely, thoughtful piece has just become our Christmas Spiritual Reading for our parish SVP Conference.( They call it SSVP over here.)

    I want to wish you, and Liamy, Joe, Seán, Pádraig, Mary OV, Soline, Eddie, Kevin, Séamus, Tony and all our regular correspondents a very Happy, Holy and Healthy Christmas and every good wish for 2022.

    Thanks especially to Liamy for keeping the show on the road so well.


  3. Soline Humbert says:

    Brendan Hoban: A season to reawaken our childhood wonder.

    Thank you very much Paddy, well said, and may I add my words of appreciation and my own grateful thanks and Christmas best wishes to all you mention. Blessings of light and hope.
    ”God became human so that we could become divine”, how wonder-full!..
    Joyeux Noël!

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Brendan Hoban: A season to reawaken our childhood…

    Indeed, let me echo Paddy and re-echo Soline in thanks and best wishes to all the above. And Joe, that second fragment of Heraclitus is surely the motto for any synod: ‘The way up and down is much the same’.
    But we must also say Happy Christmas to Ger for valiant attempts to shake things up a bit…

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