Christmas is a strange time.
Ritual is at the heart of Christmas, public and private rubrics that are
part of the essence of Christmas time, and without them Christmas, as we
say, isn’t Christmas. One such ritual for me is reading (and re-reading) a
poem by Seamus Heaney called ‘Clearances’. It isn’t a particularly Christmas
poem but it conjures up that warm, brittle feeling of Christmas, a sudden
clearance where what’s important can be distinguished from what isn’t with
Seamus Heaney wrote Clearances 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
At that moment there was between mother and child a togetherness, an
understanding, a kind of communion, a closeness that Heaney would forever
remember. Death is like that. It fills the mind with incidents and memories
and people and places. And Christmas is like that too.
Christmas is a strange time. It has a funny way of creating an empty space
around us. Despite the hype, Christmas has a way of stripping our lives down
to the essentials. In the midst of Christmas cheer, a small thin voice
insists on posing a series of difficult questions: what does it all mean? Am
I happy? what is 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 we find
ourselves putting our lives under a microscope. Wondering.
It’s the equivalent of shuffling our way through a dense forest and then
suddenly we find ourselves in a calm, silent clearance. And we get a calmer
and more reflective view of where we are. Suddenly we have an opportunity to
put things in perspective. It’s as if, in some peculiar way, we have been
brought into our own presence.
As we walk around the shops, a sound or a sight or a smell suddenly
re-awakens something within us. 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
memory comes flooding back. A seasonal wistfulness follows as we remember
the faces and places of the Christmases of the past.
Then more reflectively we begin to place the hopes and the dreams in the
context of where we are. And as the harsh realities of life begin to
impinge, we feel the edge of regret and failure. Tread softly, Yeats wrote,
because you tread on my dreams.
As we move through the Christmas season, powerful forces seem to stir within
us. We 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 us to close that tabernacle tight, to hold memory at a
You see in the distance a couple embracing. You see people with children and
without children. You watch an old man struggling to get across a street.
You look at the intensity in the eyes of a child in a crowded shop and a
memory of times past flutters within you. You think you’ve got a handle on
something, that time or distraction have dulled the intensity of feeling and
then you hear a snatch of a song on the radio or you bump into an old friend
and the tears well up or a smile breaks out. Something reminds you of how
happy or unhappy you are, how fractured and how fragile are the bits and
pieces of yesteryear that come to us 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 wonder how we’ll manage, as the
cliche puts it, to ‘get over the Christmas.’
Paul Durcan, in his poem, Christmas Day, described Christmas as the feast of
St. Loneliness. In it he writes about watching a phone on St Stephen’s Day
that never rings, capturing in that haunting image the sense that, for many,
Christmas is a moody and melancholic time, a time when loss and unhappiness
seem somehow intensified by the tinsel and glitter of the festive season.
Few of us would want to confront our demons so harshly. But at Christmas
time, the memories slip through the sieve of life and the demons gather,
demanding a space, searching for an audience. Christmas is that kind of
time. Full of 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.
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.
I want to thank Brendan for his inspirational, honest and creative thinking and writings. It is so liberating and uplifting that there is somebody who names things and faces reality as you do. You have a way of lifting us out of the dull, predictable and what is mainstream. I think that you release the wild, unpredictable, periphery and the longed for Jesus born at Bethlehem. Thank you.
Thanks to the ACP team for the uplift, hope and creative energy that you bring to us through this website. I don’t think you realise that what you do is so decisive and counts.
I also thank Tony Flannery. He as many of us experience him, is a gifted communicator and somebody who makes it possible for Jesus to have cred in our times. I like his Jesus when there are so many safe-sloppy, domesticated Jesus’s being presented to so many people in our times.
I thank the women of Killaloe. Their charter is up at the back of our Church. Each Christmas I threaten to put a few women into the crib! It’s a pity there is only one woman in the Christmas crib. A sure sign that this is a story told by men where women don’t count. As well put by Gerry O’Connor, we are about to celebrate the birthday of a difficult man! Bring more of it on in 2015!