What is Christmas?
Buying and getting presents? Eating and drinking too much? Being with family? Putting up an evergreen tree? Decorating our homes with lights and tinsel? Lighting our fires and candles? Well, yes and no. These customs belong to the more ancient festival of the Mid-Winter, the solstice, at that point in the year when the light begins to return; but then the celebration of Christmas, the birth of the child Jesus who some call the Christ, was placed on top, the birth of Jesus and the Winter Solstice eventually merged, not all at once, but eventually, and then we began to forget the meaning of this season. For the ancients it was the coming light, the hope for the coming year, for physical survival. For the Christians it was the birth of a different light, the Light of the World, and spiritual survival. The light of hope, has sometimes got lost in the transition to a world built on buying and selling. How else do we understand the statements heard recently that ‘Christmas is cancelled’ because the shops are not open, and the people have not the freedom to roam through them.
This year has been a difficult one for all of us, in our chapels and our everyday lives. For the Essex Hall Staff and for the Executive Committee, all work has had to be done from home, and they have worked tremendously hard. The EC has met monthly, the strain of concentrating through zoom meetings makes 8 hour meetings impossible. For the Presidency, everything went on hold. I remained President, Anne Mills Vice President and Sue Woolley VP Elect. None of us can move on until we have a General Assembly AGM, so we created a team, fielding emails and taking services via zoom. Once or twice before the second lockdown we managed a face to masked face service from a pulpit. We have carried the Chalice Flame and the love of this Assembly as best we can in difficult times. We are looking forward to the vaccine coming and making lives easier – is this the light of hope for 2020?
To all congregations struggling with the rigours of lockdown, hand cleansing and mask wearing, at-a-distance pastoral work, may the light of hope burn bright.
To all of you who have suffered the rigours of the Corona Virus, may the light of recovery be complete.
To all who are still shielding, may the light of kindness not miss your door.
To all who have worked throughout this difficult time, may you know the unwavering light of our gratitude.
With love and blessings for a hope filled Christmas and New Year.
Christmas this year of 2020
Christmas 2020, as we keep being told, will be different - but let's not concentrate unduly on its commercial elements; these are not what truly matter. Other faith-groups, this year, have been denied the opportunity to celebrate their great spiritual occasions, and have accepted the instruction with reasonably good grace; we could be equally understanding and accepting in our attitudes. We are not to be completely deprived of our Christmas festivities, after all; there are usually alternatives, which give us the opportunity to be creative. As the Government rolls out its plans for a brief Christmas relaxation of restrictions, however, many of us find ourselves faced with hard choices: do we risk infection, after so many months of adhering to the rules, or do we do as our inclinations bid us and mix and mingle with enthusiasm? Or do we set our personal preferences aside, in favour of the greater good? These are matters on which we must make our individual decisions, based on circumstances, and there are no rights or wrongs in the situation.
During this year of difficult choices, when our world has become strangely unfamiliar to us, we have been obliged to change our ways of acting and thinking; we have praised our society for becoming more concerned about others, for being kinder and more thoughtful, for viewing our world more appreciatively. I have felt very proud of our Unitarian congregations, who have made tremendous efforts to care for their members and to include them all in the community of their church-lives: in the absence of actual church-services, other forms of worship have been offered; extra newsletters have been produced, and circulated, to keep everyone in touch; phone-calls, letters and emails have been exchanged, neglecting nobody, and ensuring that those most lonely and vulnerable have felt important and cherished; a network of concern has flourished - a tribute to those whose hard work has maintained a sustained initiative over several months, and one which is set to continue into the future. Isn't this what the best Christmas spirit should represent to us?
Should we perhaps stop dwelling on this Christmas, and say, instead, that next year will be different: a time when we can all be united, able to be together freely, and as we wish; when lives and health are not at risk? Might we be prepared to reduce this Christmas to the bare minimum, for one year only? However you choose to spend this Christmas, I wish you all peace and love: stand firm; keep faith; and fill your hearts with hope. In the words of Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well".
I have recently been reading Doing December Differently, by Nicola Slee and Rosie Miles, and at one point Slee suggests that, for those of us who struggle with the relentless myth of happy families in the coming season, our best bet is to try to keep a sense of perspective and “build in good recovery time afterwards. Give up on guilt. Laugh at the god-awful bits. Cherish the unexpected moments of wonder.” Because yes, if we are lucky, there will be unexpected moments of wonder.
If we decide to opt out of the hedonism and consumerism of the season, by claiming Slee’s suggested virtues of “restraint, simplicity and ‘enough-ness’, and decide not to spend more than we can afford on presents they don’t need for people we hardly see from one year’s end to the next, nor on excessive amounts of food and drink to see us through the festive season, or if we choose to source both presents and feast ethically, we may be able to gain a new perspective on what Christmas could mean. That is the celebration of the birth of a particular child, at a particular time in history, who grew up to be a wonderful preacher and teacher, whose words can still inspire us, more than two thousand years later.
Of course, as Unitarians, we may not believe that Jesus was an incarnation of God, except in so far as we all are. Which may give us food for thought. If all of us contain a spark of the divine, perhaps the meaning of Christmas might be that we recognise it in other people. Even the ones we don’t like very much…
Or it could be a time of re-connection with who or what matters most to us – whether that is family or friends, or the blessing of having come through a difficult time this year, or our hopes for the new year that is just around the corner. Or we may prefer to celebrate the Winter Solstice, as the longest night passes, and we turn our faces towards the longer days ahead.
So let us be kind to ourselves this Christmas season, and do what we can, where we are, with the talents we have, to try to be kind to others too, both for the rest of this year, and as we move forward to a (hopefully) brighter 2021.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we continue to weather the lockdown,
Each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this difficult time,
Keeping in touch however we can,
And helping each other,
However we may.
Let us hold in our hearts all those
Whose lives have been touched,
In whatever way,
By painful events, in their lives,
And in the wider world,
Of which we are all a part.
GA Vice-President Elect
What is Christmas?