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.