After two thousand years of mass/ we've come as far as poison gas
After two thousand years of mass/ we've come as far as poison gas
Thomas Hardy's lines seem especially apt as the war grinds into the Christmas season. How are we to feel cheerful in a time of such fear or find solace in the idea of goodwill. Men are fighting and dying in the mud, women and children are camped out in tents in Afghan cold. In America, heartbroken families face Christmas without loved ones. There is enough gloom and anger about to send us all running to the deepest, darkest cavern. The pages of our newspapers have echoed to competing choruses of the righteous, but I'd bet that the majority aren't moved to righteous anger either way at the moment. Most people are just worried. This is the first Christmas of a war on terror we've been told will last for years. What will the New Year bring? Attacks on Somalia, Iraq, Sudan? And what horrors are being planned by the patient murderers of al-Qa'ida who lurk quietly in the cities of the West?
This is not a war where combatants will cease fire to play football on Christmas Day. There will be officially inspired attempts to cheer us up. Already the spin masters will be planning the photo ops: politicians munching turkey in military camps, letters by the sackload read under torchlight in cold barracks.
Stand by for exhortations to remember the forces overseas. I doubt that people will need reminding. I disagree with the school of thought that says the Western public is disengaged from the reality of the war. Of course, we cannot smell death or feel the pounding of explosions. But nobody I've spoken to in the past few days has managed to shut out the war.
They might want to, but it simply isn't possible. The attacks of 11 September altered all of our lives in ways we still struggle to comprehend. As Seamus Heaney put it, in a different context: "We pine for customary rhythms."
The Christmas season is the most enduring of our customary rhythms, but with war raging, there is the nagging feeling that the usual celebration is inappropriate. This of all times, it has been suggested to me, is a period when we should face the world as sober and earnest folk, turn our backs on the materialistic circus of Christmas. Well, I'm sorry. But my ongoing commitment to earnestness and piety (which so often delights my critics) does not extend to this Christmas. If ever there was a time when we needed to enjoy the good things in life, it is this Christmas of 2001.
And please let it be a season in which we do not have to endure the great annual whinge about commercialism and materialism. As GK Chesterton wrote: "The note of material Christmas presents is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilisation." Mr Chesterton upbraided a certain Mrs Eddy who refused to give presents in a "gross, sensuous, terrestrial sense" and instead "sat still and thought about truth and purity till all her friends were much better for it."
There is nothing wrong in spending money you haven't stolen. (Though I am assured by those who know that there is a great pleasure in spending money you have stolen).I adore the sound of the the Christmas streets, glutted with shoppers and awash with money. This is not because I have any intrinsic love of money. I don't. But I love the sense of bonds being broken, the saved money of a year escaping across the counter, the budgetary restraint of 12 prior months exploding in one great spree. My friends, go out and have fun, and to hell with the glums. It doesn't mean you are careless or callous, rather the opposite. The ability to have fun without cruelty to others is a benchmark of civilisation.
As a child in an alcoholic home I sat through some grim Christmases and I know that for many the season is one of fear and desolation. But I always loved the strange magic of the season; it was something no amount of drunken rages could destroy. Our Christmases were divided between the city and the country. At the risk of lapsing into "McCourtese" (the most lucrative and lachrymose of all Irish literary traditions), let me offer you some images of those days: the lanes off Henry Street in Dublin bustling like a fabulous bazaar, crowded with old women who hawked gaudy decorations and cheap toys to the city's poor; a John Field nocturne trembling from our first rickety record player as my mother wrapped presents on Christmas Eve; a roasted goose sitting on my grandmother's kitchen table in County Kerry, steam rising from a pile of potatoes the height of Mount Brandon; the St Stephens Day Wren Boys wreathed in straw, their faces blacked, singing and dancing on the street outside her door; a night going back to Kerry in Christmas week when we got lost in fog and slept in the car, a world I recognised from the writing of Patrick Kavanagh:
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
mass-going feet crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters on the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of Christmas townland,
the winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Now that I must shepherd a five-year-old boy through Christmas I am caught up again in the whirling energy of downtown streets, overseeing the writing of a letter to the North Pole and counting the days to a morning of gifts and bacon sandwiches. These last have been a family ritual since time began. As a child I used to wake around four o'clock on Christmas morning. My own son has inherited the habit. This Christmas I will sit down to lunch with 17 people in a house in County Clare. I have no doubt it will be chaotic. Red-faced and overtired children will first play and then do battle. When I say that they range in age from six months to 14 years you may be tempted to sympathise, or at least murmur: "Thank God it's not me."
Too many people will crowd the kitchen offering unwanted advice. Some vital ingredient will be discovered missing and the only shop in town will be closing in five minutes. The men will congregate in the hall, blocking the way, and talk hurling and football. My father-in-law will sit serenely at the head of the table, nursing a glass of Jamesons, blissfully untroubled by the pandemonium.
I won't even attempt to get a word in at the table. It would be foolish to compete with my voluble and beloved in-laws. It will be a brilliant day. In all of this how much time will be devoted to the spiritual aspect of Christmas? There will be a convoy to Mass and the children will put on a nativity play. The Irish television news will broadcast Pope John Paul's Christmas message. Urbi et Orbi. More of our customary rhythms. On the surface it may not look like a great spiritual commitment. But the surface is a place for lazy minds. If you are among those you love and can laugh with them that is spirit enough, a fit riposte to hatred and war.
The writer is a BBC Special CorrespondentReuse content