HO, HO, Ho – aye, right. I’m not a Grinch but, c’mon, things have gone mad. I was in shops in October which were selling both Christmas and Halloween decorations at the same time. What’s with the January sales starting halfway through December? And while we’re talking, some shops have even already started selling spring daffodils and Easter eggs. I mean, when did things go so weird?
As for the fad for outdoor illuminated decorations, I don’t believe for a second the oft-heard excuse, ‘Sure the kids love it’. There was a time you had to go inside someone’s house to find out they’d no taste; this time of year all you have to do is drive past illuminated Santas climbing ladders onto roofs glittering with sparking icicles.
I nearly crashed my car driving up the New Lodge Road one dark December night some years ago. Something caught my eye on the balcony of one of the flats. At first, I couldn’t make it out but then, all of a sudden, it revealed itself – an illuminated life-size nativity scene, crushed onto a balcony no bigger than four feet long and three feet wide; I know because I lived in one of those flats for a while as a child.
Crammed in were the three wise men, Mary and Joseph; I couldn’t see the baby Jesus but I was sure he was there. While this was surreal enough, what had me in a kink was the sight of a large snowman standing at the back of the nativity scene. All I can think is that the snowman was from a previous Christmas display and they didn’t want to leave him out. The New Lodge nativity scene was never repeated, though I never drive past the flats this time of year without looking up.
While I accept that Christmas is inevitably becoming more secular, it feels as if consumerism had mounted a surreptitious coup, replacing Christ with Mammon. Hardworking families put themselves in debt from one Christmas to the next to ensure every wish is realised. On Christmas morning, gift-wrapped boxes are ripped open in a frenzy, with many toys remaining unopened, such is the rush to get on to the next gift.
I talk from experience; I mentioned to my wife a few years ago that I was worried we were spoiling our two, pointing out that I hadn’t gotten a tenth of what they received at Christmas. My wife responded, "Yeah, and look how you turned out". Ouch.
I’ve instigated my own recycling scheme; if toys in our house aren’t opened within a month then I sneak them into the loft. There they remain until the following Christmas when they’re retrieved and brought to a local charity who hand them over to Santa to redistribute to less-fortunate children.
For me, the real spirit of Christmas was demonstrated during a Midnight Mass I once attended at Clonard Monastry in west Belfast. Although working, I’d made sure I got away early as I knew you had to be there in good time to guarantee a seat. The worshippers surrounding me were of all ages and backgrounds and, like me, some had come from work, others home and a few, the local pub.
All were made welcome by the small army of men and women helpers in red blazers who courteously helped seat the large crowd and assist those who may need a bit of extra help. At the stroke of midnight, the monks, having taken their place on the altar, began the service.
Just at that moment a street drinker, obviously drunk, staggered the length of the church and half-knelt, half-slumped on the altar and promptly went to sleep. I could see a phalanx of red blazers quietly advance up the sides of the church to remove him. One of the oldest monks on the altar also noticed this unexpected entrance and slowly made his way to the drunk man. Bending down, he whispered something in the man’s ear and, satisfied with the response, gently stroked his head and waved off the men in blazers.
And there the drunk remained, quietly, during the whole service. People knelt beside him for communion. I noticed some unobtrusively dip their hands into his pockets depositing a small gift. At the end of the service the old monk, with the help of the men in blazers, ministered to his needs. How fitting that just as 2,000 years earlier someone homeless on a cold night had found shelter.