Monday, 19 December 2011

Just nostalgia?

For those of us who have grown up in Britain, there's no escaping Christmas nostalgia. It's part of us, whether we like it or not. Our French friends think Christmas in Britain is massively over hyped, and I find myself largely in agreement with them - it's too commercial, it goes on for ever and we celebrate it too early. Of course, this may be because Christmas is now all we have in terms of a truly common, national celebration, largely due to the consequences of Tudor monarchical greed, and distinctly damp weather (although, having said that, Orthodox Russia manages its yearly celebrations fairly well, with a far more inhospitable climate.) As we sink further into secularist banality, Easter has lost its hold on the popular imagination, being for most people simply a marking of the change of seasons and the opportunity to eat masses of guilt-free chocolate.

This is Peter Hitchens waxing lyrical (for the most part) on the traditional English Christmas:

"Of course, like most children in countries where Christmas is celebrated, I was from my earliest childhood thrilled by the promise of presents, the exhilarating, intoxicating smell of the pine tree in the house, the rich foods and the feeling that this was above all others a special time of year...
In fact I much preferred the weeks before Christmas, the strange light in the sky (the melodramatic, suspenseful nature of late December English weather is perfectly described in John Masefield’s enchanting book ‘The Box of Delights’) , the carol singing, the stirring of the pudding (the Church of England has now abolished ‘Stir-Up Sunday, in its incessant effort to get rid of everything about the Church that anybody actually likes. The prayer for that day contains an exhortation to ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people’ and refers to ‘plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works’, and that Sunday, a month before Christmas, was also in many homes the traditional date for stirring of puddings. I have never been sure if this is an accident, or a light-hearted insertion by a jolly Bishop centuries ago) ...
So for me the season is one of darkness illuminated with carols sung by lamplight, the sun low in the sky, and a promise, never entirely fulfilled on the day itself, of something wonderful to come. That sticks, when all else falls away..."

Read it all [here]
That resonates.
For those of us who grew up in rather more robustly ecclesiastically observant families, we would have to add to our childhood memories the Advent season's hymns, collects, and propers, a building sense of anticipation culminating in the decoration of the Christmas tree (while in the background the radio broadcast the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's Cambridge), followed by early stints serving at the altar at Midnight Mass and Christmas Day, not to mention the feasts of the Christmas Octave. Not for us the contemporary and lazy anticipation of  Christmas from the beginning of December.

But above all, what remains in my mind is the stability of it all. As children (yes, we were fortunate) we felt safe, loved and secure; it's one of the reasons Nick Clegg, the British deputy prime minister, gets the 1950s and 60s * so completely wrong -  not that he is old enough to remember them. [See here]

[*My own recollection, as a young child, of the 'sixties' in provincial Britain, is that nothing much had changed; the disastrous political and social legacy of that decade only really began to be felt by most people in the 1970s, which, for those of us at school then and beginning to be aware of the wider world, was a dark, depressing and dangerous decade, with the constant threat of economic collapse, political instability and a descent into chaos.]

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