Brendan Hoban: Powerful forces stir within us at Christmas          


Christmas is, well, Christmas. It demands our attention. It insists that we defer – even if only once a year – to liturgies, religious and personal, that we sense we need to remember and repeat. Practices that have become hallowed by time. People we remember; places we need to go to; pilgrimages we 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 can see, in my mind’s eye, in the kitchen at home in Ballycastle through the rails of a kitchen chair, my father, God rest him, saying at the end of the family Rosary, ‘Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís’, a prayer that we would all be alive the following Christmas.

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. Around her bedside were members of her family, some answering the prayers, some crying. A scene from his childhood flashed across his mind: it was a Sunday morning; the rest of the family were at second Mass; his mother was peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink and she had him standing between her and the sink. As they peeled the potatoes together the skins fell one by one into a bucket of clean water.

At that moment there was between mother and child an elemental togetherness, a kind of communion, a closeness that Heaney would forever remember. We’ve all been there in some sense and at Christmas the memory seeks, even demands our attention.

Christmas, as we know, is a strange time. It has a weird way of creating an empty space around us. Despite the hype, Christmas has a way of stripping our lives down to the bare essentials.

In the midst of Christmas cheer, a small thin voice can come out of the shadows and insist on posing a series of difficult questions: What’s my life for? How can I satisfy that itch within me? How can I satisfy that part of me that nothing seems to satisfy? How can I explain the wonder that I sometimes sense is at the heart of life? And thus at Christmas, suddenly I find myself putting my life under a microscope. Wondering.

It’s the equivalent of shuffling my way through a dense forest and then suddenly I find myself in a calm, silent clearance. And I get a calmer and more reflective view of where I am. It’s as if, in some peculiar way, I have been brought into my own presence.

As I walk around the shops, a sound or a sight or a scent suddenly reawakens something within me. It could be an echo of a Christmas carol or a child’s face in the crowd or an old person shuffling along. And suddenly a specific memory comes flooding back.

A seasonal wistfulness follows as I remember the faces and places of the Christmases of the past. Then, more reflectively, I begin to place my hopes and dreams in the context of where I am – and, with old age, where I am likely to be. And as the harsh realities of life begin to impinge, I feel the edge of regret and failure and loss.

As I move through the Christmas season, powerful forces seem to stir within me. I feel at once elated and depressed, happy and sad. Something within me wants to open the great tabernacle of memories and hug them to bits. Something else wants me to close that tabernacle tight, to hold memory at a distance.

I see in the distance a couple embracing. I watch an old man struggling to get across a street. I look at the intensity in the eyes of a child in a crowded shop and a sudden memory of times past flutters within me. I imagine I’ve got a handle on something, that time or distraction have dulled the intensity of feeling and then I hear a snatch of a song on the radio or I bump into an old friend and the tears well up or a smile breaks out. Something reminds me again of how happy or unhappy I am, how fractured and how fragile are the bits and pieces of yesteryear that come to haunt me out of the shadows.

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.’

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 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.

So, make sure you take a bit of time off from Christmas. Let the water under your feet settle into a little puddle so that you can see a bit of yourself in it. Let the bustle fade into a silence. Find a clear space where you can hear what life is saying to you. Sit somewhere and look out at the world as it rages and races past. Find a quiet corner and let the ghosts of Christmases past come to the surface for yourself.

Christmas is another clearance and it’s always in the clearances that we find out what really matters.

May I wish all who read this column the blessings of the season.

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  1. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you Brendan, and Christmas blessings to you too.

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan, thank you for all you have contributed in 2023 and my very best wishes to you for a Happy Christmas and for 2024.

    I have just started on Holding Out for a Hero, my requested Christmas present.

    Like you, Francis is not just a pleasure or a source of satisfaction but a joy beyond words.

    I have shared what you have written on the back cover with the Scottish Laity Network FB page.
    They are our great source of hope in the Church in Scotland.


    1. Patrick Rogers says:

      Thank you so much Brendan for sharing so many of your life thoughts with us on this website. What you write is always eminently readable. Can I wish you a very Happy Christmas season and a healthy new year of 2024

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