A Christmas reflection
Christmas is what we did last year, and the year before that again. It’s about speaking a language, in word and in symbol, that conjures up memories of the past and helps validate the present. Which is why ritual is at the very heart of Christmas.
Public and private rubrics are part of the essence of Christmas time, and without them Christmas, as we say, isn’t Christmas. One such ritual for me is reading (and re-reading) a poem by Seamus Heaney called ‘Clearances.’ It isn’t a particularly Christmas poem but it conjures up that warm, brittle feeling of Christmas, a sudden clearance where with unusual clarity what’s important can be distinguished from what isn’t. It’s about remembering.
Seamus Heaney wrote Clearances in memory of his mother. In it he remembers the parish priest anointing his mother as she died. Around her bedside were members of her family, some answering the prayers, some crying. A scene from his childhood flashed across his mind: it was a Sunday morning; the rest of the family were at second Mass; his mother was peeling potatoes at the kitchen-sink and she had him standing between her and the sink. As they peeled the potatoes, together the skins fell one by one into a bucket of clean water.
At that moment there was between mother and child a togetherness, an understanding, a kind of communion, a closeness that Heaney would forever remember. Death and serious illness are like that. They fill the mind with incidents and memories and people and places. And Christmas is like that too.
Christmas is a strange time. It has a funny way of creating an empty space around us. Despite the hype, Christmas has a way of stripping our lives down to the essentials. In the midst of Christmas cheer, a small thin voice insists on posing a series of difficult questions: what does it all mean? Am I happy? what is my life for? how can I satisfy that itch within me? how can I satisfy that part of me that nothing seems to satisfy? how can I explain the wonder that I sometimes sense is at the heart of life? And we find ourselves putting our lives under a microscope. Wondering.
It’s the equivalent of shuffling our way through a dense forest and then suddenly we find ourselves in a calm, silent clearance. And we get a calmer and more reflective view of where we are. Suddenly we have an opportunity to put things in perspective. It’s as if, in some peculiar way, we have been brought into our own presence.
As we walk around the shops, a sound or a sight or a smell suddenly re-awakens something within us. It could be an echo of a Christmas carol or a child’s face in the crowd or an old person shuffling along. And suddenly a memory comes flooding back. A seasonal wistfulness follows as we remember the faces and places of the Christmases of the past. And the older we are the more wistful we become.
Then more reflectively we begin to place the hopes and the dreams in the context of where we are. And as the harsh realities of life begin to impinge, we feel the edge of regret and failure. Tread softly for you tread on my dreams.
As we move through the Christmas season, powerful forces seem to stir within us. We feel at once elated and depressed, happy and sad. Something within us wants to open the great tabernacle of memories and hug them to bits. Something else wants us to close that tabernacle tight, to hold memory at a distance.
You see in the distance a couple embracing. You see people with children and without children. You watch an old man struggling to get across a street. You look at the intensity in the eyes of a child in a crowded shop and a memory of times past flutters within you. You think we’ve got a handle on something, that time or distraction have dulled the intensity of feeling and then you hear a snatch of a song on the radio or you see a light flickering in the distance or something echoes inside and there’s a familiarity that lifts a fond or a sad memory out of the hinterland of yesteryear and the tears well up or a smile breaks out. Something reminds you of how happy or unhappy you are, how fractured and how fragile are the bits and pieces of yesteryear that come to us out of the shadows.
Life is like that. Loss too. And at Christmas, the clearance in our lives is such that the intensity returns and we wonder how we’ll manage, as the cliche puts it, to ‘get over the Christmas.’
Paul Durcan, in his poem, Christmas Day, described Christmas as the feast of St. Loneliness. In it he writes about watching a phone on St Stephen’s Day that never rings, capturing in that haunting image the sense that, for many, Christmas is a moody and melancholic time, a time when loss and unhappiness seem somehow intensified by the tinsel and glitter of the festive season.
Few of us would want to confront our demons so harshly. But at Christmas time, the memories slip through the sieve of life and the demons gather, demanding a space, searching for an audience. Christmas is that kind of time. Full of memories, good and bad but never indifferent. Memories that bring a warmth and a happiness with them and memories too that leave us desolate and cold. Hopes remembered, dreams relived, that middle ground between the possible and the actual re-tilled over and over until we begin to see the fruits of our lives scattered around our feet.
So make sure you take a bit of time off from Christmas. Let the water under your feet settle into a little puddle so that you can see a bit of yourself in it. Let the bustle fade into a silence. Find a clear space where you can hear what life is saying to you. Sit somewhere and look out at the world as it rages and races past. Find a quiet corner and let the ghosts of Christmases past come to the surface for yourself.
Christmas is another clearance and it’s always in the clearances that we find out what really matters. May I wish all who read this column the blessings of the season.