Patrick O'Donovan on the universal feast
THE HUMAN RACE keeps a multitude of feasts, and some of them are rather nasty. Many of them are cruel, some are silly, and some are sacred and command the respect even of the hostile. Some involve great and prolonged discomfort and some, some abandoned forms of pleasure.
But there is one of these feasts that comes close to being universal. In Tokyo and Bombay and Kuala Lumpur, merchants stick tufts of cotton wool on their shop windows. The mayor of Jerusalem sends, at least to his Western friends, exquisite cards which avoid any theological commitment.
In the United States, in the better suburbs, they put lifesized cut-outs of Santa Claus and his sledge and reindeer on their roofs. Vast skyscrapers at night leave the lights on in selected office windows to make an electric cross high above the darkness.
In England there is a traditional ritual of drunkenness, with the offlicences run off their feet to reserve orders for families for whom normally the odd bottle of Cyprus sherry was kept for some impossible visiting aunt. The Irish, except when they live in Britain, treat it with religious respect.
In Germany they get emotional and serious at the same time, as if they had invented the whole thing — which in its pagan manifestation they did. Somewhere there is that Bavarian parish priest doing penance in heaven for having promulgated Heilige Nacht — though I am sure he meant well.
At such a time as this men and women become dreadfully human, and that is not always beautiful. There is the relentless repetition of such classics as: "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth". Or: "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way". Or: "I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night".
I am not being cynical, because cynicism is the tribute that the current fashion in ideas pays to traditional wisdom. And religious insolence is a gesture of a crude and uncertain independence.
But all this commercialism, this fearful vulgarity is a tribute more sincere than it knows to the most universal festival in the world.
There are other feasts that command special celebrations. There is St Patrick's Day. There is Independence Day. There is the 14th of July. There is the first day of May.
And all of them, whether they involve booze with creme de menthe in the beer to make it green, or picnics with speeches of a deadly patriotism, or dancing in the street to the sound of accordions or a parade of tanks and missiles all publicly dedicated to defence, all these feasts are local and exclusive.
They may be vastly amusing. They may do much for your ego, personal or national. But they are assertive and spiritually aggressive, and insist that some group has something exclusive to celebrate.
It is very odd, and probably the result of being the most selfconfident and self-satisfied people in the world, that the English have no such national festivals. We have statutory days off in which the essential ingredient, the only ingredient, is the fact that we do not work,
We call them prosaically Bank Holidays and love them and go in procession in motor cars with children and thermos flasks, How much more fun to
carry sonic crowned statue through the streets with fireworks and music and wine and tourists and candles and flowers and carpets hung from the windows and priests billowing in their vestments! But that is not our way.
Even when we do parade our guns and soldiers it is in a stately military pavane in front of a lady on a horse with the soldiers wearing headdresses designed to deaden the cut of a sword and, anyway, only possible to see if you have a special pass.
Anyway, too, few really remember what day it is. And it probably sets back the efficiency of our Armed Forces by at least a fortnight every time it happens, But we do have this feast.
And Christmas celebrates a family. Its vulgarity consists at heart in a crib with dolls of various degrees of beauty laid out in the miniature and loving vision of some impossible stable, crowded with shepherds and kings and cattle and teeming with vocant angels. This feast is universal. This feast celebrates a family. In doing this and in the way it is done it celebrates the human condition — its poverty, its pain, its joy, its dignity in the midst of indignity, its astonishing and inexplicable capacity for love. It celebrates the fact that we are not, or should not be, like animals which die alone in hedgerows or are eaten alive as part of the now sacred ecological process. As a feast it is unique. It has captured the hearts as well as the purses of those who have heard of it. It comes as near as childbirth to being universal where even Christ has been heard of.
It is the feast of the human race, and being human we tend to celebrate it in increasingly physical terms. And although this is inadequate, it is not wrong.
1 am not being doctrinal. The fact that this feast signals the Incarnation and the beginning of salvation is not here the point.
It is not, in fact, even the chief feast of the year. It is outranked in the divine order by Easter and Pentecost, But they are of the mind and spirit. This is of the heart and the instincts and the longing for innocent pleasure and love. We know very little about Our Lady. All the basic source material could be written from the Gospels on the back of a postcard. This, of course, omits the intoxicating prophesies of the Old Testament which really are very odd in their perspicasity and splendour. In the Gospel of St Luke there is the nearest to a full story about the birth of Christ. I am told that scholars used to think this a creative interpolation, But it is a story which mankind has never been able to leave alone.
The story of the move to Bethlehem for a perfectly reasonable but civil service census — that is universal. So is the No Room at the Inn. So is the kindness of ordinary people who let Them make a mess of their stable and others who came to see a newborn child.
And I don't know if those exotic and coloured kings really came, and it does not matter in fact; it is the blinding beauty of the idea, the myth that matters. And I must remind you that a myth does not mean a tribal untruth, but the embodiment of some almost indefinable but necessary thing which gives strength and beauty and, when true, goodness.
This is the crowned and crowning myth. Because of its eminence, it has also its attendam depths.
Christmas is a time when some people feel loneliness like a pain in the side. The very vulgarity of the shops is an effort to assert that the physical world is enough and delightful in itself. And they fail.
It is a time when the suicide rate goes up. It is a time when isolation hits people like a blow in the face. And it is because they have been excluded from this festival of the human race.
The reality is there for Christians. And it, even in practice, transcends Christianity. No other idea in history has been so encrusted with art of an enchanting unreality.
The image of a mother suckling her child, in a stable like a
palace, upon a throne like a Queen, humble, commanding, hieractic, human, explicit, making — by implication — the physical act of being a man or a woman a marvellous thing, a miracle.
We, the Western world, have lavished upon this myth all the beauty that we can command, We have clung to it and elevated it and loved it as the denial of our vile condition.
For it, and therefore for us, the musicians have written their most tender music, For this event, more than any I can think of, we celebrate, with joy, the fact that we are human and that love, human and divine, is a reality.
Here, in this predicament of a Middle Eastern family, a displaced mother with a child at her breast, and a worried, well, foster father, there is all truth, and all reality and all that gently matters. It takes a proper vulgarian to be fastidious about Christmas.