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Meanings Of Christmas: So now it's all downhill until Easter

The days which follow the great celebration of the Incarnation can seem a bit gloomy. But, says Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times, there are disadvantages to unbridled happiness.

The fourth day. When you've just given birth for the first time, kind friends will warn you to beware of the fourth day. That is when the seismic shift in your hormone balance kicks in, and you decide, absolutely definitely and no question, that you want to give the baby back. At precisely the same moment, you know that the baby is the most precious and vulnerable thing in the world, and that, too, is unbearable.

Robust midwives invariably use the dismissive approach. "Have a good cry if you feel like it," says the Health Education Authority's Pregnancy Book, "and try to sleep, if you can."

The fourth day after Christmas, then, has nothing to do with calling birds. This is the day when it is best to think of Mary weeping - not because of any prescience of her son's death, nor in anticipation of any future sorrows, but because her body and her soul have been telling her the enormity of what she has done for four long days, and now, all at once, it is sinking in.

This helps to explain the hymn which I sang at school (to the tune of Quem pastores) years before I knew about such things:

Jesus good above all other,

Gentle child of gentle mother,

In a stable born our brother,

Give us grace to per-ersevere.

Duff last line, I thought, budding English star that I was. A better line would have been something like: "Let us all be ha-appy now" (budding English star that I wasn't). But perseverance, for Mary and for us, seems somehow the most appropriate grace to ask for in this season.

How can this be? Four days ago, we were singing about the "news of great joy, news of great mirth". So why should men on earth be so sad? The gloom which traditionally descends on the country about now, when there are only the sales or another repeat of Zulu to look forward to, is usually blamed on secular excess. Everyone is familiar with the taunt: "You spent so much time and energy celebrating in the run-up to Christmas, you're too tired and jaded to enjoy it properly now it's here." Had we followed the Church's teaching, the season of Advent would have been one of prayer and penitence, meditation on the four last things (death, judgement, heaven, hell), and quiet preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation. That would have left us ready to celebrate Christmas, which, liturgically, only begins on Christmas Eve and lasts till Epiphany.

But how does the Church mark the first day after Christmas? It is the feast day of St Stephen, the first martyr, stoned to death for voicing his vision of Jesus in heaven, standing on the right hand of God. There is some respite the following day, which is the feast of the austere gospel- writer St John. But next comes Holy Innocents, when Christians dwell on Herod's massacre of all the children in Bethlehem. No matter that, chronologically, this happened after the wise men had visited the stable and ought, therefore, to be commemorated sometime after Epiphany: certainly no earlier than the middle of January, considering how long it would have taken Herod to discover that the wise men had gone home the back way.

On 29 December we can relax just a little, with only local saints and martyrs being marked in the calendar. In England we have Thomas a Becket, brutally hacked down with swords in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. According to the accounts, this did take place on 29 December, so there isn't a lot of leeway here. And so on.

So, the gloom of this post-Christmas, or liturgically, mid-Christmas, period has been around for a long time, and might even pre-date the first showing of Zulu (though this is dubious). Many reasons for this are given. First, it is still winter. The midwinter feasting is a burst of laughter in the dark; there will be a long stretch before spring appears. Second, and related to this, life and death go on as before. A child has come into the world; but the same number of people will go out of it as usual - probably more, given the cold. The Christian calendar, above all things, is a testimony of the relentlessness of death, however nobly borne.

But, above all things, it is the nature of the Christian religion that happiness and sadness are never parted for long. With the help of the calendar we live within the story of Christ, where the elements of tragedy and comedy are indivisible - until the resurrection. The clue comes in the Easter season, when celebration follows gloom: a mirror image of Christmas. We might grumble about killjoy religion, which won't let us forget ourselves in unbridled happiness; we never complain about kill-gloom religion, which won't allow us to lose ourselves in hopeless despair. Have a good cry if you feel like it, then. The baby blues are real, and should not be dismissed. But the fierceness of the pain will pass, and the joy will not.