Midnight Mass isn’t really my tradition. I was brought up a Quaker, and while my ex-Anglican parents would occasionally take us to a hymn service at Christmas, I much prefered being tucked up in a duvet on the sofa listening to Twas The Night Before Christmas, read to us from a little red book with a sellotaped spine. Christmas was also pink grapefruit with brown sugar for breakfast, a Terry’s chocolate orange, a snowy walk in the Saskatchewan prairies, then home to the traditional feast served on a pink and orange tablecloth. After my parents’ divorce my mother’s staunch commitment to the decadance of the holiday became more apparent: while my budget doesn’t stretch to a shopping trolley full of speciality alcohol, and my own taste in decorations runs to pine-cone hedgehogs and felt robins, I always pick up a box of liqueur-filled chocolates in her memory, and adore tinsel-dripping trees (in other people’s houses). And if I’m invited to Midnight Mass I will go, indulging her love of Aled Jones and the King’s College Choir.
In fact, my own attachment to Christmas is in large part a way of honouring my mother’s spirit. But perhaps inevitably, I’ve also developed a deep personal affection for this most mongrel of holidays. Leaving aside the greed, hypocrisy, loneliness and terrible commercialisation that seems to start right after August Bank Holiday . . . Christmas is a pagan winter festival; a camp orgy of all things shiny, red and OTT; an annual reminder of the power of family; the gateway to a week of quiet in which to read long books; and an opportunity to discuss the real situation in the Middle East – as this year’s Bethlehem Unwrapped festival is doing so powerfully with its erection of a model of the apartheid wall across the entrance to St James’s Piccadilly. Christmas is also a time of giving to others in desperate situations, and a celebration of love, peace, good will and the birth of a dissident. What’s not to like?
My parents left Quakerism when I was a teenager, and as an adult I began my own journeys into Buddhism, shamanism, the Tarot, Saturnalia and, lately, with my increasing political activism, back round to an inclusive respect for Christ the Revolutionary: a Palestinian Jew who, as the Facebook meme has it, ‘hung around with lepers, hookers and crooks, was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty . . . but never anti-gay, abortion or birth control’. When, in the last three years, I’ve taken up an invitation from an anthroposophist friend to attend Solstice Labyrinth meditations and Midnight Mass at All Saints Church in Hove, I’ve done so not simply to enjoy these seasonal rituals, but with the sense of partaking in private and cultural ceremonies with the potential to enhance the work I do all year.
This Christmas Eve the Syrian crisis was weighing heavily on my mind, as was a photograph of Hala Shabeekha, the four year old girl killed on Christmas Eve in Gaza. She died in an IDF air strike on a refugee camp, an illegal act of collective punishment ordered in retaliation for the fatal shooting of an Israel border repair worker. Living conditions in Gaza are intolerable, the cycles of violence are gearing up again, lives have been lost on both sides, and the fear of yet another massacre in the beseiged strip is very real. And, of course, images of Syrian children barefoot in the snow are also hard to reconcile with the joy and plenitude of the holiday here for the privileged classes in the UK. And yet there is that ‘other Christmas’. The Christmas that reminds us we are all members of the human family. The sermon began with a quote from Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown: ‘Carve the runes. Then be content with silence.’ Or not. Within that silence, the vicar asked, please listen to Gaza and Syria, and to our own city’s homeless, and let us try to ‘turn tragedy into pregnancy’ – that is, to bring forth hope from despair.
I couldn’t have asked for a sermon that better expressed my own feelings about this world of insane contradictions, in which the struggle against injustice must, at the same time, also be a struggle to express and nurture and share the best of what we are. Knowing that the vicar, Fr Phil Ritchie, has invited my friend to give a talk on her recent trip to Palestine imbued the singing, the incense and the magnificent architecture with genuine splendour. I left feeling strengthened and uplifted, having thanked Fr Ritchie and shaken his hand.
Though there is still one contradiction sticking in my craw: much as Jesus is cool in my book, I just can’t stomach the virgin birth. I’ll never be able to say I’m a Christian while church liturgy still espouses this misogynist ideal. So as a counter-balancing offering, before I head off to feast with Quaker family friends here in Brighton, I’ll finish with another George Mackay Brown poem – one that speaks to the real risks of birth, the social importance of gift-giving, and ‘the finished house’ we find, fleetingly, in ceremonial days. Happy Christmas, everyone.
The Finished House In the finished house a flame is brought to the hearth. Then a table, between door and window Where a stranger will eat before the men of the house. A bed is laid in a secret corner For the three agonies – love, birth, death – That are made beautiful with ceremony. The neighbours come with gifts – A set of cups, a calendar, some chairs. A fiddle is hung at the wall. A girl puts lucky salt in a dish. The cupboard will have its loaf and bottle, come winter. On the seventh morning One spills water of blessing over the threshold. George Mackay Brown
*Photo from this website, Lavender and Lovage, just because I liked it!