When I was filing annalog the other day, I discovered two entries under hope. I’m not surprised. Wild unreasoning hope may be almost as hard to bear as to witness, but the steady small candle flame of hope has most of us through hard times. Like Rose (not her real name) who has just been diagnosed with a patch on her lung and said she was absurdly comforted by how practical and kind everybody was at the Respiratory Clinic. It made it possible for her to hope. And rather than fling around the trimmings of Christmas without understanding them (why holly? why mistletoe? why reindeer?) I think perhaps it might be rechristened the Festival of Hope.
I recently met a child who had never heard of the Shepherds or the Three Kings, for whom the star and the manger weren’t even folklore. They didn’t exist. Her Christmas is the material holiday, lights on trees, lots of food, sweets and presents, time off from the grind of life. I thought it was sad. There is nothing more hopeful than a child, a new being and aside from memories of my childhood, I like the story because I grew up with it as an example of coming together (working men and princes = shepherds and kings), a belief in something bigger (an unseen Power rather than King Herod or the mighty Roman Empire), respect for animals – the donkey that carried the pregnant Mary – and (in old tradition) was allowed a night in which he and the ox in the stall where they all bedded down could speak to each other about the star, and the angels. Remember the old question “Why did God make humans?” And the answer is “Because he loved stories.”
Christmas brings out the best and the worst in people. Every time I see that Tesco ad with the wife’s father sitting there making a pig of himself, I want to scream. But a couple of days ago, I was in a pretty square which featured the smallest florist I have ever seen, about the size of two modest wardrobes shoved together, one for making up bouquets and wreaths and the other for display. I saw something I didn’t recognise and (it was very early, nobody was about) put my head round the door and asked about it. A woman with a sweet round face answered me and my eye fell on tiny fir trees in earthen pots. “And those?” I asked. “Miniature fir trees” she answered. “They have roots, they’ll grow.” So I bought them and while she was wrapping them, she explained that the shop was an outlet for a rose grower and reaching down, fished out a bloom for me to smell. That took me back. “Just like the ones my mother used to grow” I said and she selected six, explaining they were past their best but they’d smell sweet, even as they declined, and tucked them into the bag as a gift. They went in the bathroom where it’s warm and every time I sniffed, I could see the little front garden in Middlesbrough and the three rose trees my mother carefully nursed from season to season.
And upstairs on the bus the other day, I sat beside a young man who looked as if he had escaped from a children’s history book – with a long slender skull, pale brown skin, coal black hair and beard and dressed in every kind of Christmas clothing – track pants with reindeer and sleighs all over them, a Christmas sweater with bells and ribbons and carrying a Christmas hat, bright red with a pompom and trimmed with gilded holly. How he looked and what he was wearing could not have been more opposite. So, after a minute or two, I asked where he was from to which he replied in broadest Strine “Australia”. I nodded. “And the family?” He answered “Lebanon.” I smiled straight into his face. “Best looking Santa Claus I ever saw!” And his face split into the answering grin as he got off the bus.
People keep saying “What are you going to do for Christmas?” and the answer is count my blessings. When I look at the pain and trouble in the world, from the local to the global and back again, I think I am beyond fortunate. And all that counting will take me through next week so there will be no annalog as we transition from 2016 to 2017. You’d have to be more hopeful than I have ever been to imagine that 2017 isn’t going to be what is politely called challenging so let me wish you peace and health until the week of 3 January. And thank you, thank you for being you.