6am, Christmas morning. But it feels like the heart of night.
Most Christmases these two decades past I would not that long since have come to bed, weary from wrapping presents smuggled out of hiding in the loft. But this year is the first since our firstborn blazed into a July heatwave in 1995 that winter has not brought the fabricated visit of Father Christmas.
Presents have accumulated under the tree over weeks rather than ‘magically’ appearing overnight. The bottle of port is yet to be opened. No mince pie was eaten, a fragment of crust and crumbs not left, artfully carelessly, with a tooth-marked stump of carrot.
This year I have not hunted with fruitlessly wracking brain for the ‘Santa stop here’ sign. I have neither found, nor replaced, the wax and seal that I couldn’t find last Christmas eve/morn, and so didn’t grace the ivory paper with its Tolkien-tribute shaky handed message from Father Christmas. (Our youngest noticed the missing seal last year. Was this the beginning of the end for Santa?)
I might have felt sad about all this, wheeling in the new bike last night that she knows she’s getting, because she knows we bought it, and that I didn’t bother trying to wrap.
But I didn’t.
I might have reflected on a year of treasured celebrities passing, and bewildering turmoil in domestic and world affairs (and I did) — and felt fearful.
But I didn’t.
I might have thought of all the times I finished the domestic Santa charade and turned in thought and writing with a message to my students, knowing it would be read and acknowledged by many, and felt a sense of loss and failure that now my students are fewer and my relationship with them more tangential and my sense of purpose less secure.
But I didn’t.
I might, in posting a picture taken as we entered ‘midnight’ mass at 10pm, with a hastily written poem, of sorts, expressing a kind of melancholy that the outward and acknowledged celebration of Christ’s birth (at least as experienced by me, here, now) signally fails to tell out that story in its fierce and tender and glorious and frightening luminosity, have seemed, as the one commenter on my Instagram suggested, to have been intending to put a ‘downer’ on Christmas.
But I wasn’t.
Christmas changes for us, and in turn can be a zooming, panning, tracking lens that focuses the wider shifts of our world and our place in it. Some of these changes are more or less natural and straightforward (Father Christmas retreats into legend), others are messy sites of tension between what we can control, what is served up to us regardless, and what we are not sure is either one or the other.
The Christmas story for me now is one of those contested territories. Part of me would love to go back to the certainty about the incarnation that I had when I thought about it as I did about Father Christmas, knowing that the scrape of his sleigh runners on the roof of the Earby New Road Christmas party venue was sure and certain proof that he was coming.
But I can’t.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t celebrate the incarnation (whatever that is) of God (whatever that means) in a baby (whoever he was). So I will continue to wrestle meaning out of that story, and joy out of its crying wailing hope in a world that was then, and continues to be, so often troubling and tragic.
This year the carrot will remain unbitten,
One myth retreating as childhoods recede,
I’ll hang on to one other, partly written,
Heartly hoped-it-might-be-so child: God in deed.