Mary Kenny makes an impassioned appeal for Christmas
DAWN was rising over Flanders as the young girl opposite me in the train awoke. She was English — a cheerful Cockney type, know what I mean? She was on her way to Brussels to visit her brother, who worked there. "It's going to be quiet here, today, isn't it?" she said, indicating a sleeping Belgium. "It's a Bank Holiday in Europe."
A Bank Holiday! A Holiday for a Bank! That is all the poor young English know nowadays. They call Pentecost a Bank Holiday — a Spring Bank Holiday. (In fact, that no longer accords with Whitsuntide, and they wouldn't know Whit if it bit them).
They have always called St Stephen's Day, "Boxing" (i.e. presents) Day. They know naught of Corpus Christi, when all over the Continent, long and sonorous processions are undertaken, petals are strewn, fresh flowers are placed in the cemetery. The Feast of the Annunciation, once celebrated in England as Lady Day, has now passed them by.
And here was this chirpy character sitting opposite me in a Belgian train, sweeping aside All Saints Day, with its sombre attendant, All Souls' Day, as a time off from exchanging money — a Bank Holiday. How pagan, how materialistic that very term is — a Bank Holiday.
In Poland, every knee would bend; in Yugoslavia, peasants would spend hours on hardened pews, in France the villages would be a blaze of chrysanthymums: the whole of European history, the crucible of Christian civilisation, is involved in the celebration of these ancient Christian feasts, and for the English, it is a "Bank Holiday". (I say "the English" deliberately since the Celtic fringes are slightly more aware of Christian feasts).
The BBC would signal All Saints day by mention* that the foreign exchanges were closed, so the performance of the pound sterling had not been monitored that day. Money again!
But the one reason why we should hang on to Christmas for grim life, it seems to me, is that is does at least still have a residual element of Christian festivity. Yes, it is very commercial, and has been now for almost a hundred years: it was the Victorians who started up Christmas cards, who introduced the holly and the ivy and the robin redbreast.
Strangely enough, I don't mind the commercialism of Christmas all that much, because there is quite a bit of charitable fallout as well. It people spend huge sums of money on really quite inconsequential toys (the average parent spent .£29 for each child on Christmas toys in 1983) they also give quite a lot of money away, if only from guilt.
Indeed, the charitable aspect of Christmas has actually grown in recent years, and if the charities have borrowed from consumer capitalism by using its marketing techniques, then so much the better if it brings more bacon home to the charities.
Of course, there are ludicrously neo-pagan elements of the Christmas event. As the excellent Jennifer Paterson remarked in a rcent food article in the Spectator, walking down London's Regent Street, you might imagine that December 25 celebrated the birth of Mickey Mouse. Yes, and the Advent calenders are now strewn with fat, winking Father Christmases, reindeers, "Xmas" stockings and even Star Wars images.
But when all is said and done, the connection is not entirely broken. If people are going to visit a Church at any time of the year, they will do so at Christmas. The most outrageous atheists go to carol services — even A J Ayer has been seen warbling a carol at Christmas time. Christmas is so magical in the way that it restores and revives our religious feeling that I dare say even Don Cupitt, even the Bishop of Durham will be heard praising, in song, the Virgin Birth, looking forward, would you believe it, to the Resurrection.
While practically every other Christian feast has now been occluded by secularism (Easter? Just think of the TV fare offered on Good Friday: indistinguishable in its brash vulgarity from any other "Bank Holiday" of the year), Christmas alone retains Christian symbolism, Christian associations: "0 Come, All Ye Faithful" will ring out in the clear night air, and "Hark! The Herald Angels" will Sing.
Folks will murmur the words and ponder on them: "He came down on earth from Heaven, Who is God and Lord of all; And His shelter was a stable, and His cradle was a stall."
Christmas still has the ability to hold people's imagination, to startle them, to make them look at stained glassed windows, as in John Betjeman's extraordinarily powerful and moving poem on Christmas and be struck* by the wonder of it all, "And is it true? And is it true? This most tremendous tale of all? . . . The Maker of the stars and sea — Become a Child on Earth for me?"
And then concluding that if it is, nothing else matters, or compares to the Incarnation: "That God was Man in Palestine: And lives today in Bread and Wine". And that is what Christmas can still do. It can still make people think, and remember.
For the rest of Christian festivities are, alas, lost to us for a series of Bank Holidays. In London schools now, they are trying to teach children multiethnic faiths — Harvest Festival was dropped in our local school for the Hindu celebration of Diwali.
When I mentioned in passing in the Sunday Telegraph that I felt uncomfortable about multifaith practices replacing Christianity when half the times the poor kids knew nothing about Chritianity, for starters, I got a bitter letter from Glenys Kinnock reproaching me for being a bigot and intolerant of other faiths.
I'm not. But I am very sad that for most London children, the only faith they know is in the great god Bank Holiday. So hold on to Christmas! For the moment, it's all we've got.