The Christmas story has become clogged with repulsive sentimentality and compulsory jollity

24 Dec

“Put on a good Christmas and it’ll all be all right,” Boris Johnson was heard saying towards the end of 2004, at a moment of domestic crisis.

This remains the Prime Minister’s view, and he has plainly hated introducing restrictions which this year make “a good Christmas” impossible to arrange.

The broadcasters have risen to the occasion by interviewing people for whom it is impossible to avoid feeling sorry, for they were so looking forward to seeing those they love, and their plans have now been wrecked.

But there is something to be said for a simpler Christmas.

The festival has become clogged with repulsive sentimentality, mindless acquisitiveness and worst of all, compulsory jollity.

We are told we must spend money we do not have in order to enjoy feasts for which no fast has prepared us.

A sort of panic, shot through with moments of despair, may grip whoever bears the heavy burden of arranging the feasts. No matter how many lists have been made, luxuries delivered, delicacies prepared, at the last minute it may be discovered that some unusual item, indispensable to the happiness of a certain member of the party, has not been obtained, whereupon someone else who is desperate to get out of the house volunteers to go and find it.

No harm, of course, in giving people what they want. But as a friend of mine who is in poor health, and has seen no one but her carer since February, put it to me when we spoke this week:

“I’ve never liked the way people behave at Christmas, as if they’re going to have a nervous breakdown if they don’t have one more satsuma.”

The expectation of perfect food, perfect drink, perfect enjoyment imposes a strain which is relieved when something goes wrong, and we no longer feel condemned to strive to realise, from our own inadequate resources, this vision of the good life.

Once we become grateful for what we are given, regardless of how modest it may be, panic recedes. The self-imposed tyranny collapses.

We feel ourselves “letting go of the fantasy of unbounded gratification”, as Rowan Williams put it in a slightly different context in a recent review. We no longer imagine that by our own unaided efforts we can save ourselves.

Jollity stops being compulsory, and we perhaps find it easier not only to enjoy things ourselves, but to remember those for whom joy seems unattainable: the people interviewed by the broadcasters, or written about by Wendy Cope in A Christmas Poem:

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single.

At three o’clock this afternoon the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will be broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge.

No idea here of benighted, death-menaced human beings attaining “a good Christmas” by our own unaided efforts, even if official regulations were to permit the attempt.

As the third reading, from Isaiah, puts it:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

The last lesson, from the start of St John’s Gospel, gives the most tremendous of all renderings of the story:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light. That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.