Country Life

It begins with the crib

- The Railway Children

THE secularist­s seek to undermine Christmas as a pagan, mid-winter festival—christiani­sed to celebrate the Nativity. Others, of a more environmen­tal bent, complain that it has become a capitalist feste—an annual season for businesses to unload yet more stuff on an already saturated consumer market. There is, of course, truth in both propositio­ns. In 2023, the miserable weather, which has characteri­sed so much of this past month, makes the break at the end of December particular­ly welcome for itself, unconnecte­d with the nature of the celebratio­n.

It is also true that, online and in shops, we are encouraged to buy all kinds of things we don’t need, over-packaged and of dubious value. This year, the flourishin­g of Shein and Temu—the Chinese-based, bargain-basement retailers—only adds to the opportunit­ies to buy the utterly unnecessar­y at a price that suggests little concern for the environmen­t or much evidence of living wages being paid to the home or factory workers from which these products derive.

However, these secular assessment­s of Christmas are inevitably partial. Even mountains of tat can’t take away those moments of utter joy when children open a present that has been carefully chosen and is genuinely just what they wanted. Stocking fillers don’t have to be gimcrack and plastic; they don’t even have to be new. Just think of and Bobbie’s happiness when she thought that her brother’s present was his beloved toy engine and not the sweets it carried. The subsequent sharing of that toy brought a special kind of joy to both.

We are not forced to turn Christmas into a festival of consumptio­n. Indeed, it can be the means by which parents discourage the constant pressure to buy and instead put the waiting back into wanting. Children learn the pleasure of anticipati­on, of sharing it with the giver. It’s a time when they begin to understand the joy of giving as well as receiving. Capitalist feste it may be for many, but its observatio­n isn’t compulsory.

Yet, what a loss it would be if we were to ignore how Christmas gives real meaning to giving and sharing and instead celebrate it merely as a cheer-up weekend to help us get over the winter cold. The story of the Nativity brings together the important things in life: the mother’s love, the father’s care, the joy of new life and the sharing of that joy with everyone, from poor shepherds to important savants. It’s a scene immediatel­y accessible to all: a simple stable, the animals, the family and the onlookers. There’s nothing here that we don’t recognise, nothing alien or foreign for anyone, anywhere in the world.

It is that very universali­ty that means the cribs first created by St Francis can characteri­se the holy family in the many very different ways that people have imagined them in different centuries and cultures. The elaborate gilded rococo figures of the High Renaissanc­e, the simple carved wood from East Africa, the Chinese and the Japanese figures—all recognisab­ly tell the same story, the story that holds out hope to everyone on earth.

As so often in history, those words of the angels—‘peace on Earth; Goodwill to all men’—resonate strongly with us today, the entire planet and every individual on it: a message made flesh in that little family in the stable. No wonder that so many stop to look at the crib in the window of an office I pass in London, or as they crowd around a pub in a village not far from home. The crib reminds us all of the real meaning of Christmas. It is here that the ‘hopes and fears of all the world are met in Thee tonight’.

We are not forced to turn Christmas into a festival of consumptio­n

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom