Loneliness—that’s what will do it for you. Even if it’s well-populated. In the middle of a Christmas carol, a Victorian Christmas market, The Nutcracker, in shops with sweaty, top-to-toe crowds braying and yelling, “Here’s the credit card and damn the expense!” Yeah, loneliness.
Last year, 85-year-old James Gray was fearful of spending another Christmas Day alone, in his London flat, as he had done for the past 10 years. In a fit of daring, the former butler advertised in his local paper for someone to share Christmas lunch with him. Only one—a woman—replied, and then promptly changed her mind when a better offer came up.
If Christmas didn’t exist, someone— obviously a retailing genius—would have had to invent it. Tiny dogs (e.g., labradoodles) are selling well, as accessories, for their “handbag appeal,” to the horror of dog-shelter workers who have the thankless task of rescuing abandoned pups at the beginning of next year.
When the world’s desires have been ineluctably homogenized, top of wish lists are unmanned aerial systems— drones to you and me—selling for thousands of pounds and causing consternation among aviation officials who fear mid-air collisions. A heart-stopping near-miss between a drone and an Airbus 320 passenger jet was averted at Heathrow in July, but hasn’t put off indulgent shoppers who must have the latest must-have.
‘We can’t get enough!’
Building up to a shopping crescendo, we’ve already had Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Manic Monday. We can’t get enough! Online shopping alone has been generating a spend of £470,000 every minute. Great news for an economy reliant on consumer spending (aka “piling on the debt mountain”) to keep the wheels of commerce from juddering to an almighty halt, especially as the United Kingdom is doing well, with GDP growth forecast at 3 percent—the envy of Western economies—and the accelerated fall in unemployment.
The UK is the sixth richest country in the world. I dare not say that to our parish priest, Canon Luke, to his face; or to the nearly million people who use over 400 of the country’s food banks, which seem to have multiplied exponentially in the night.
Yes, food banks: where you can get free groceries and other essentials if you have been mugged by life and its unpleasant cousins—cost of living crisis, debt, very low pay, nil job prospects, mental-health problems, addiction, broken families. (We’re not the only wealthy country to have them, apparently: Canada has 800; Germany, 1,000; and France, 2,000.) Isn’t that a laugh, especially when the UK food industry destroys over 4.3 million tons of perfectly edible food, each year? And at Christmas time, when bacchanal amounts of alcohol are drunk and food eaten!
Every year, we give away some £10.3 billion in international aid to poor, underdeveloped countries. We are a rich country, but a million of our people are going routinely hungry. I’m not indifferent to someone’s misfortune. (Heck, it could be you, it could be me on that bread line!) It’s complex and polemical; I can get my head round it, but have difficulty swallowing it. Last week, in an attack of virtue, I did an extra big shop, to donate to Fr. Luke’s food-bank drive. What did I want? Forgiveness, which as we know is a “narrow door that cannot be entered without stooping”? Solidarity? Comfort for a guilty conscience? “There are two ways to spread light,” wrote Edith Wharton: “To be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.”
Christmas brings out in droves, like hives, all the control freaks and lifestyle commandants who, in a periodic fit of censoriousness, want to create a totalitarian winter-wonderland state where they reign like modern-day Caesars. Spouting all kinds of gibberish: where to buy Norwegian firs that don’t shed needles; the best organic polenta-fed turkey; endless to-do, to-buy, to-drink, to-eat, to-wear lists. Santa baby, I want a sable/yacht/duplex underneath my Christmas tree!
I think people should be allowed— without ridicule or opprobrium—to excuse themselves from the season’s mass outpourings of “festive” glee and the mania surrounding the fascistic enforcement of jolliness and mandated merriment. Some people, like me, are more inclined around this time of year to weary sighs, or to a kind of ecclesiastical gloom. There are some people who cheerfully take pleasure in being sad; I’m not one of them (yet), but I’m bothered by the hyperventilated materialism of Christmas that hangs heavy like a great storm cloud over the land.
There’s scarcely any reference to what you or I—throwbacks—want or need in our Christmas celebrations. That heaven is dancing in unbridled joy because Christ is born.
Some of our schools and institutions have even taken to modernizing the traditional story of Nativity by jettisoning Mother Mary, St. Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and Three Wise Men for Elvis, One Direction, footballers, aliens and spacemen. Which, in a fit of despair, is probably what drove poor Fr. Dennis Higgins to inform young children at a school service that Father Christmas (Santa Claus to you and me) is a “fake; he does not exist.”
On Gaudete Sunday, Fr. Luke in his sermon said: “The joy that the liturgical texts speak of is not what the world would generally consider to be joy, for it isn’t the joy associated with being rich, being filled or being well-spoken of. Rather, it is the joy that comes from knowing and having the closeness of God.” Amen.
How to impart this message to the more than half-a-million British people in their 70s who spend Christmas Day acutely alone, and for whom the only company is the radio or television? The charities Age UK and the Royal Voluntary Service work their hardest at this time of year, looking out for people challenged by adversity and whose families no longer want them or have moved away. It could break your heart; many of these forgotten ones have appealed to the charities for someone to phone them up for just a small chat, to hear the sound of a real human voice. Telephone befrienders are stepping into the breach, doing the work of angels.
With my gift list and MasterCard, I got off the train and on to the Underground, getting off at Bond Street station—within striking distance of my favorite stores. Intending to schlep my way from one store to another on a Thursday afternoon, how bad can it get, I wondered? Gosh dang it to heck! Oxford Street was like a scene from World War Z! Despite this, lights were very pretty; shop windows were pure siren calls for shopping orgies. London, the fairest of the fair! She shall go to the ball!
Deep breaths; no way I would navigate the human traffic on foot, without a contingent of centurions and Sherpas! I’m a coward; I gave up, got on a bus, and did what any self-respecting refugee from the mayhem of Christmas did—sightseeing. There’s ice skating; Hyde Park turned into Winter Wonderland; oompah-pah bands; chestnuts roasting on open fires; Christmas markets; the tallest, twinkliest trees from Norway; carolers singing joyfully; Jack Frost nipping at their noses.
The implacable December weather is the cryogenic cold of winter, with the temperature dropping to minus figures. At a local pub, all decked out in mistletoe, ivy and holly, a friend and I met for glühwein and mince pies, the pub’s aging Labrador snoring soundly in front of a great roaring fire. Laughter and bonhomie. This I can handle: life on a human scale.
11 days too many
Twelve days of Christmas are 11 days too many. No wagyu beef this year, or Yubari melons from Japan, no truffles or Almas caviar. I can tell you that growing old has its compensations. You can still have a surging greediness for life and yet be comforted knowing that there are many things you no longer covet; that the things you couldn’t have when you were younger, you no longer need or want.
In a crazy world this Christmastide, I’m not deaf nor blind to the religious intolerance, ethnic hatreds and nasty ideologies swirling violently around us. But in my little world right now, only the truly important prayers remain: the good health, safety and security of my child and of our family; the blessing of the babe born in a manger. And a fervent wish: to be touched by the grace—if not always the hand—of God.