God bless us every one (hic!)

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AT THE HEIGHT of the Gulf War, I paid a visit to the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. I was the only person there; I strolled alone through the green, irrigated gardens, walked alone through the low doorway, hunkered down alone in the low chamber carved out of the rock, and wondered.

I sat there for a couple of hours, wondering about the history of this place, and how many people had died for what it may have represented, and after a bit I gave up trying to work out the rough chances of the whole damned thing having been literally true because, as far as my brain was concerned, that simply didn't matter. What mattered was that there existed a finite possibility that it was true, and that this was the place where slovenly, wild-eyed, seditious Reb Yeshua bar-Yussuf was translated from death to life... in which case, here I was, an intelligent, modern man, squatting on my haunches at the exact geographical fulcrum of the entire created universe.

At that point, my cameras, my tape recorder, my pen, my notebook, my wristwatch - all the intricate apparatus of my intelligence and modernity - became curiously weightless, and I was towed upwards by my mind like a poor little man with his foot caught in a balloon-line. I struggled at first, but after a bit gave up, almost crazed with terror and awe.

I can remember the experience, but not now how it felt; just as I can remember once having had the sort of faith that seemed immutable. I recall the fact of certainty, just as I recall knowing that my marriage would last for ever. Then came apostasy and estrangement, and Darwinism hot on their heels. But even then... well, a random universe is a plausible universe, and we all know about Occam's Razor, but what about the Cambridge physicist who, earlier this century, was approached by a young man who wanted to go into theoretical physics? "No future in it," said our chap. "It's all been sorted out. A few loose ends to tie up, but, apart from that, we now understand the universe pretty well." A few years later, Rutherford split the atom.

So militant atheism offers no more comfort than religious faith; less, in fact, because faith, to the faithful, justifies its own existence, while the detached and scientific atheist must live with the knowledge that he can never expose his godless universe to the ultimate test of falsification. At the best, atheism is a good bet. At worst - on this night of all nights - it's cold comfort, a step away from Scrooge, who was damned if he'd be fooled.

And, dear God, how we all long to be fooled. Look at the parents, elbowing along Oxford Street, our arms dragged from their sockets by the weight of Amarige de Givenchy, Sylvanian Families, frog-mouth candlesticks and novelty clocks. Look at the office drudges, all dressed up, bellowing and beaming at people they despise the rest of the year, fumbling in a taxi with someone they never noticed before; mince-pie-burping, novelty- socked, Hamlet-scented, or unsteady in their new short skirts and stiletto ankle-boots, purging themselves in a Soho gutter: Warninck's Advocaat, the once-a-year sacrament, the yo-yo of drinks.

Look at the terrible festive proles, roaring down Charing Cross Road, bellowing lager and Slade in their awful clothes, the cheap acrylic Santa hats on their bull-terrier heads worn with all the ceremony of an episcopal mitre; and their frightening women, all hair-do, aldehyde and PVC. Look at the merchandise, the Gift Idea supplements, the ridiculous illuminations, the office lunches, the push-the-boat-out foodstuffs.

It's hope. All of the things, all of the people; it's all about hope. Hoping we can be fooled. Hoping that if we act as though there's more to life than the grind and the trough, then there'll be more to life. Somehow, it will all come true.

Yesterday, seasonally pissed, in bed at 3pm, I thought of old Christmases, and it was always the Eve I remembered. Hope and anticipation: the knotted excitement of a child in a dark room bright with anticipation; the perplexity of sudden sleep when sleep was an impossibility; being carried, half-stupefied, from my father's car into a bright room full of giants, roaring with the smell of sherry and cigars; once, inexplicably, being put to bed in a cavernous northern hotel, alone with a bell-push and monumental furniture; always, the uncertain but tremendous miracle of the stocking at the foot of the bed.

And, as an adult, Christmas Eve journeys: crossing London before dawn, one winter when it snowed, leaving the first tracks (although there was an old man on a bicycle wobbling exultantly down High Holborn); driving to Midnight Mass at Southwell Minster, with the top down, frozen, hoping my first love would be there; the Moscow express, stopped at Berlin, and a teenage Soviet border guard playing "Stille Nacht" on his transistor; France, spellbound and silent under freezing fog.

Tomorrow morning, the miracle will have happened, or not have happened: the presents will have come, or not; the family be united and loving, or not; the turkey will burn or be just right. Lovers will wake to a kiss, or alone again in their sundered beds; God will clothe Himself in flesh and visit His creation, or remain sunk in sullen non-existence; it will be Baywatch Barbie or a sensible scarf. But today, at the heart of winter, it's all hope and possibility.

At midnight tonight, there'll be raucous secretaries, pissed and singing up my street towards their hopeful beds, with off-duty coppers and Barry from white goods in his sharp new suit. For once, I shan't curse them but listen to their song. "That yonge child when it gan weep,/ With song she lulled him asleep:/ That was so sweet a melody/ It passed alle minstrelsy./ The nightingale sang also:/ Her song is hoarse, and naught thereto: /Whoso attendeth to her song and leaveth the first: /Then doth he wrong." !