Brendan Hoban: Christmas can be a time of mixed emotions         

Western People  20.12.2022

Some years ago, Paul Durcan, in a new poem, Christmas Day, described Christmas as the feast of St. Loneliness. Some people think that’s going too far. And some people think it’s not going far enough. But no matter how you look at it, for all its tinsel cheer Christmas can be a moody time.

It’s not just that some people can’t enter into the cheery atmosphere. Or that Christmas seems to exacerbate the sadness of the varied tragedies of life. It’s to do with that distinctive air of Christmas melancholy that seeps into the crevices of our lives at the most unlikely times. At Christmas dinner or at midnight Mass or having a celebratory drink with friends out of nowhere we can find ourselves suddenly overcome with sadness.

There’s something about this time of year that sharpens the sense of sadness that seems part and parcel of the bitter-sweet experience of Christmas time: waiting for loved ones to come home from far away or coping with the knowledge that they won’t make it home this year; the joy of a close relationship and the happiness it generates or the knowledge that the love has somehow died and only the silence remains; the glint of expectation in the eyes of young children and the knowledge that what they expect is beyond what the family budget can stand; the wonder of a new born baby snugly ensconced in the home; or the difficult truth that, as everyone else is having a great Christmas, this year the dominant memory will be of a loved one no longer there.

But, of course, Christmas is more than that too. There’s something about the Christmas spirit that seems to underline, even presume an expectation of happiness. It’s the one time of the year when people sense that they deserve to be happy and when they’re not, the loss is felt all the sharper. Then when sickness or even death forces its way into our lives, we experience not just the loss but the unfairness of it all.

Maybe there is a sense in which we can expect too much. The words ‘Happy Christmas’ are used so often that we begin to imagine that everyone has an automatic right to them. The bouncy music, the flashy ads on television, the bright lights in the shops, the lift that so many get at this time of the year, even the Ho! Ho! Ho! of the shop Santa Claus drumming up a bit of business and the irrepressible Rudolph jingling his bells – all of that can carry us along on a sea of expectation.

The reality is of course that we will be as happy at Christmas as we are at any other time of year. The only difference is that at Christmas we are more aware of how happy or unhappy we are.

You could call it ‘the Christmas night feeling’. It’s a kind of annual stock-taking that we seem compelled to make as the hours are counted down to Christmas or new year midnight. It’s an examination of where we are and how it’s going, a night when the eyes can fill with tears as the memories flood in and the expectations of other years seem to have come to something less than was expected. Christmas night is a kind of clearance in which we find ourselves, sufficiently distant and alone to see the wood from the trees of our lives.

Of course, reality is always less than it might be. And on Christmas night we can find ourselves mulling over the bits and pieces that go to make up the lives we have. That’s why so many people buy so many presents on Christmas Eve. That’s why so many who never come near the church for the rest of the year somehow find themselves drifting towards the Church on Christmas night for an annual visit. That’s why so many say that they resent, even hate Christmas. It’s a paying of dues, a naming of what’s important, a listing of what matters when the chips are down and the effect of the drink wears off. And I think too it’s about the experience of being alone.

In a sense, no matter how much we may be surrounded by the richness of the festive season, no matter how close we may feel to those we love, Christmas can be the time when we are most alone. At Christmas, we’re conscious of the turning of another year. We’re conscious too of where we stand on the scale of contentedness or satisfaction or fulfilment or plain happiness. Christmas is almost an annual mid-life crisis when the great sieve of life gets a good shake and we look around us to see what we have still going for us.

So maybe part of the trick is to know that somewhere sometime during the Christmas season, that mood of restrained melancholy will strike us. Part of the trick too is not to load the season with too much expectation. Or is it that we’re all just getting on a bit and the years slip by, excitement needs to be poured out in smaller measures?

Part of the trick too is looking outside ourselves to see how we can lift the siege that others less well off than ourselves experience.

Let me leave you with a poem by Máirtín Ó Direáin, Cuireadh Do Mhuire;

Do you know Mary where you’ll go this year / To look for shelter for your Holy Child  / While every door is shut in His face by the hatred and pride of the human race?

Deign to accept our invitation to this island by the sea in the ancient West. / Bright candles will be lit in our church windows / and turf fires kindled on the snowy heath.

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

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