Brendan Hoban’s ‘Western People’ Christmas column

Finding a calm, silent place this Christmas

Western People Dec 22nd 2020


As everyone keeps saying, Christmas 2020 won’t be a ‘normal’ Christmas. As if we need to be reminded! Fewer 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 will be strange with the ubiquity of face masks reminding us that COVID-19 is ever-present wherever people gather, especially without appropriate levels of social distancing. In the strangest of ways, the virus is 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 2020. All dressed up, as we say, and nowhere to go.

Of all years 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; simple 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 closeness 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 cliché puts it, to ‘get over the Christmas’.

Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice. Take yourself off by yourself for a quiet walk. Just by yourself. Your own time. Empty your mind of all the hassle. As if to 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 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 the memories of the past, the 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 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.

And 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. Kevin Walters says:

    “Find a clear space where you can hear what life is saying to you”

    Who will buy, a bit of heaven?
    Gold and silver have their place
    But happiness is before your face
    Man’s spirit is a timeless thing
    The Father gives us music to make it sing
    Capturing things from long ago
    Memoirs of love and of woe
    Do you remember the buttercup or lamb in spring?
    The gentle hand that to school did bring
    Was there a friendly word given by Mum or Dad when you were sad?
    Did the Sun ever surprise sending sparkling visions before your eyes?
    Or the silvery Moon peep its head from cloud as you laid upon your bed
    As the wind blew your hair were birds singing in the air
    Standing by the roaring sea as it showed its majesty
    Did the stars seem brighter than the morning dew as they showed themselves to you?

    If to all of this you can say no, we have further yet to go

    Do you remember the pain of birth?
    As you arrived here on earth
    As rain drops on a windowpane is your life just the same
    Will not the rainbow show its self again?
    Does terror stalk you through the night?
    Did not the frost ever bite?
    Did not God give you sight
    Are you frail and old?
    When winter’s gone does not spring unfold
    Have loved ones returned to clay?
    Does not all flesh go that way?
    Do your prayers seem in vain?
    Where has virtue gone? Her lovers to sing her song
    Let nothing dark or evil in
    Will you not hold (Grasp) the Father’s hand and say I want to understand?
    If we do not seek, how can His love we repeat
    If you hide your frailty and sin
    You collude with evil and it will win
    ‘When sin is hidden it creates its own prison’
    The Christian heart can take no part
    The Holy Spirit will surprise,
    If in humility, from the light within we do not hide.

    “And then 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”

    As the Holy Spirit leads us into the fullness of life the gateway to Heaven.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    Oh Kevin I love your spirit! Happiness IS before us and the rainbow WILL show itself again. As people of faith we believe that the Light always shines in the darkness although sometimes we don’t open our eyes, minds and hearts wide enough to see it.
    Beannachtaí agus Athbhliain faoi Mhaise duit agus daoibh.
    (and Brendan Hoban, your writings are a joy!)

  3. Kevin Walters says:

    Thank you, Mary, for your comment and may I wish you the blessings of Christmas and a happy New Year also.

    At this time of year our memoirs are stirred you will remember Ger Gleeson who was a regular poster on this site who died on Nov 12th 2013. I also believe that you met him on at least one occasion. As this caring statement of yours testified at the time “I am so shocked and saddened to hear this news. I had the great privilege of meeting Ger last year in The Regency (he insisted on buying us all a drink, I remember) and was bowled over by his passion for his faith and his deep, deep love for his wife and family. He was never afraid to speak out against injustice.

    Ger died within twelve days of my discourse with him on the ACP site in which he related this account to me:

    “All of that said there were always a few Priests, Nuns and Brothers, who were human, and gave us an education, basic in my own case, and many of my colleagues. The Church of course was all powerful, and all its rules had to be obeyed without exception. The Church as an institution was always more important than its members. This certainly was not the story only of Limerick. It was the story of all Ireland.
    Shaftsbury House, Beeston Road, Leeds was the only address I knew in England from my earliest years. That is where my Dad lodged for most of his life, sending home the few “Bob” every week to keep us going. He came home every 18 months, and when he finally retired around ’65 and returned home for good it was strange to have almost a stranger in the house. He went to God in ’68. I finally stood on the steps of Shaftsbury House, in the year 2000. It is now a listed building and boarded up.”

    In the year 2000 I had to go into Beeston, Leeds to collect some machine parts from a company that had just moved there. Not knowing the address I had to leave my van and ask directions, while doing so I was approached by a fiftyish year-old Irish man who was slightly built (about 5’ 5”) with a full wavey silver head of hair, possessing bright grey blue eyes asking for direction to Shaftsbury House which he said was a listed building. I had never heard of it. While I was envisioning a Victorian listed building, he then realised we were stood almost directly outside the said building which was modern (1930’s) and constructed of brick and boarded up. I remembered this incident shortly after Ger’s death so I never had the chance to relate this incident to him. I often think of him and his family as can be seen by my comment at the time which to some degree mirrors yours:
    Where can I start,
    I know that you had a generous heart
    Courage you gave, as you put pen to page
    We never met, but I call you friend
    As me you did defend
    No quivering lip, you fired from the hip
    Your heart was as mine, many a time
    Courage you knew, I know this to be true
    You spoke from the heart, to lighten the dark
    As your new dawn breaks
    Surely you will reflect His face

    Does my physical description fit the profile Ger the man?

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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