In Glasgow last week, visiting a friend who lives in the city centre, it struck me that the pre-Christmas bustle, that we are all supposed to find inevitable, exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure, is fuelled by desire. Nowadays, fuelled principally perhaps for a personal desire to have ourselves a very Merry Christmas. The ingredients of this modern Merry Christmas are well known:
1 lavishly decorated green or silver fir tree (preferably huge, dead or alive).
A large amount of objects (preferably new) colourfully wrapped in shiny paper, tagged with names of their new owners.
1 large warmed-over slaughtered animal (or equivalent) in the centre of a table (preferably large).
Several happy faces around the table (preferably laughing) wearing paper hats & pulling crackers.
At least 1 Significant Other, preferably cute.
An unnecessary amount of food, mostly fatty, starchy & sugary.
Copious amounts of alcohol.
Several hours of TV or equivalent (preferably nostalgic).
Carols (at the door/ fireside/ piano or in church).
Woollen jumpers (sweaters in N. America) with large associated motifs.
Unnecessary (but expected) outcomes of this festive mix include:
It is a central tenant of Buddhism that suffering is caused by desire. Even where this desire is not for personal enjoyment, there can still be such a stress nowadays on imposing this relentless and compulsory seasonal jollification on all persons falling within one’s sphere of influence.
Is it any wonder when it all goes horribly wrong?
A good friend whom I worked with on the Isle of Iona, is celebrating an unusual pastoral service this evening. At least, it’s unusual in the UK but not in the US and Canada where pastors felt they were failing people for whom Christmas was not at all merry.
The Longest Night/ Blue Christmas this evening is almost one of a kind in the UK and I’ve come down from Scotland to the lovely Shropshire village of Minsterly to visit Shalome and her husband, and to attend this service.
It’s been an interesting year. Actually it’s been exhausting. Looking after my elderly mother, rescuing my boyfriend from the clutches of the Home Office, writing a book on AIDS hypotheses, in rage and tears at the callous stupidity of governments and pharmaceutical companies.
Yes, when I return to Glasgow this weekend, I expect to have at least some of the ingredients of a merry Christmas. But I’m looking forward to the quiet honesty of this evening when Christmas can be allowed to be the deeply personal and very problematic time of the year that is not about distraction from the very human realities that challenge us throughout the year.
The Buddhist way is to let go, the Christian way is to let God. In both traditions we are each responsible, but not sufficient, for our own happiness – and in neither tradition is the pursuit of happiness the point.
Viktor Frankl reminds us that suffering can be transcended by finding its meaning but that this meaningfulness is different for each of us. This year for me has mostly been about saving lives. Perhaps, in the candlelight of the traditional Methodist chapel, another meaning may present itself to me. Something that may make it easier to accept and enjoy the merry bustle of these days and yet also be accommodating of the experience of those for whom Christmas is the dreaded low point of a bleak midwinter.
Thanks to Lynn Greyling who has released her photo ‘dark branches against a grey sky’ into the public domain.