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From the train window as dusk faded it seemed that every house had a tree illuminated with coloured lights. Passing through snow-covered countryside the trees were often living in gardens or potted beside drives. As we sped through suburbia, more of them were framed in curtainless windows, and as the train slowed into city stations sometimes the trees gave way to spray-snowed apartment decorations, but the lights shone out all the way, from leaving Prague, through newly reunified Germany, and into Belgium.
It was a few days after joyously seeing in the New Year of 1991 in Wenceslas Square, just over a year after the Velvet Revolution, yet I vividly remember all those Christmas trees shining out as 12th Night approached. No one had thought of taking them down as New Year approached. No one had thought to unplug the lights, and take down the angels before Epiphany.
Now, Epiphany can be the answer to a quiz question, and, however worded, many won’t know the answer. I don’t know if those trees across the Europe we are in danger of fragmenting still blaze in the second of January and on up to the sixth, but ours was taken down today.
Listening to the wistful ‘Taking Down the Tree’ by Low, we removed the baubles and wound up the lights; I unscrewed the clamp at the tree’s base and took it, shedding needles as branches sprang against door jambs, out to the garden.
The season has shifted. The forty day Christmastide ending at Candlemas shrunk to the twelve days to Epiphany, then expanded and slid backwards, obliterating Advent, then guttering out like wind-blown candles on a votive stand: some abruptly as Boxing Day turns, some before New Year, yet more as thoughts turn back to school and work and a Bank Holiday provides the time for hoovering needles and passing boxes up the loft ladder, while only an eccentric few hold out their light until we remember (or more likely, for most of us, don’t) the guiding star.
I’m not really sure what I make of this. Nor, to be frank, does the church, shunting Epiphany around to fit the pattern of days of the week against dates, and cutting Candlemas off from Christmas with a strand of ‘ordinary time’. But none of this matters to most of us. When it’s over it’s over. And it’s over in a day.
Our traditions evolve, or devolve, and if that means picking up the tree as November slides into December, then staring into the blankness where only this morning it still put up its little arms, while (their ways deep and the weather sharp), a cold going so many have of it, then it is (you might say) unsatisfactory.
But this putting away can perhaps also be transfigured. We dismantle the old year and make room for the new. I will cut up the tree for kindling and it will blaze sometime in this new year. Warmth will come, somehow, into a world that seems cold, and perhaps our empty space will make room for the stranger.
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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.
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It’s 7:30 am, Christmas Eve, and I’be been awake for well over an hour. My mind is preoccupied not by Christmas preparations but by parkrun.
I’ve listened to the weather outside. I can’t hear the forecast strong winds. I flex my muscles. A really serious, experienced runner would know what they were all called and be able detect every nuance of fatigue, nascent injury and strength. I just know, that despite the echo of a little tenderness from earlier in the week, they feel a little better than yesterday. Maybe that PB is a possibility after all. Or maybe I haven’t slept enough?
Tea and a slice of toast. It’s become something of a Saturday morning ritual, but it’s half an hour or so earlier than normal today. The Garmin buzzes and beeps. I don’t usually use the pacing feature, but I’ve set it for 4:10 m/km. I’m trying to visualise being ahead of it 2, 5, 10, 15 seconds, but the prospect of a headwind on the outer leg forcing me to fall so far behind that I’m demoralised on the return insinuates itself.
I don’t want to be too ambitious: that way disappointment lies.
As with life, so with running.
But still, I keep wondering if this time, at last, I’ll turn it around.
(If writing it will make it happen
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It is 2:34am on Christmas morning: a mince pie has been eaten, a carrot gnawed, and presents piled around a tree in a now familiar ritual albeit in a still relatively novel setting. For a number of years part of that ritual was sending a Christmas message to my students once those fantastic domestic duties were done. Last year, for the first time since 1992, I had no students to write for. Now, at my second Christmas since moving to Wales I have plenty of students, but spread in sometimes isolated hours across a range of subjects, and some of whom I only met recently after picking up some maternity cover.
This fragmented and rather fragile work situation reflects the (not unpleasant) dislocation I still feel after living and working in the same place (which never felt entirely like home) for around two decades, and which, in turn reflects the uncertain wonder with which I reflect on the past, and look to the future.
Fragmented, bewildered, astonished wonder was something felt, I imagine, by the protagonists and extras in the original Christmas drama. One of my favourite poets, e e cummings, seems to have known something about that, and I was grateful for being reminded of the poetic product of that knowing a couple of days ago online by a cherished colleague and friend whom I’ve never met in person. But not meeting someone in person needn’t preclude having a relationship with them. And so, I share with you, students, ex-students, and accidental onlookers, cummings’s Christmas sonnet:
from spiralling ecstatically this
proud nowhere of earth’s most prodigious night
blossoms a newborn babe: around him, eyes
—gifted with every keener appetite
than mere unmiracle can quite appease—
humbly in their imagined bodies kneel
(over time space doom dream while floats the whole
perhapsless mystery of paradise)
mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings
against the silence of his mother’s smile
—whose only secret all creation sings
(and may you spiral ecstatically into 2016
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The past year, like all those before it, is littered with unfinished blog posts, untaken pictures, unwritten letters and cards, unspoken words of friendship.
My track record on resolutions is not good. Even things as simple as a ‘photo a day project’ have run, at best, six months before something got in the way, I missed an entry, and then felt there was no point carrying on.
So, as I prepare to take the barely precedented step of settling down to start some work that doesn’t need finishing for several days (and despite starting early won’t be finished for several days), I’m making a not-quite-new-year, nearly-resolution – as I face a year of change, uncertainty, and promise – to maybe make more effort to do good stuff more frequently.
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This year’s Christmas message to my students:
This time last year I was writing to my students and thinking mainly of those in my Y13 form and classes who, like my eldest son, would be leaving McAuley in the forthcoming year.
This year, for the first time since 1992 I haven’t got any year 13 students, and instead it is I who will be leaving. This is my 18th and last Christmas as a teacher at McAuley, so this time I am thinking of those of you I will be leaving behind as you prepare for GCSE or AS level exams. It is an exciting time, but also one of anxiety and doubt over what I will be doing, just as many of you will be anxious about how will do on your courses and what you you will do in your lives beyond.
As I write, it is just turned 2am on Christmas morning, and I am reminded of some words I wrote in my first term at McAuley for a prayer at staff briefing. I wrote five stanzas based on the joyful mysteries of the rosary. The lines for the nativity were:
It is a long, tiresome labour.
The delivery is not without flaw.
But God will out: He doesn’t mind
Being cradled in my words of straw.
Of course the ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ refer to the actual birth of Christ, but they are also about the difficulty of faith, and of the labour involved in striving for adequate expression of faith, especially when it isn’t the strong, strident, confident faith that we may feel we ought to have.
For many of us, belief is difficult, problematic, tiresome: what emerges from that struggle is bound to feel flawed. But just as, in the Christian story, God was willing to enter into history in the very particular and humble surroundings of a stable, and be cradled in a food trough lined with straw, so the idea of God, however conceived, can find some kind of expression in our thoughts and words, however inadequate they may be. Some of us can be confident in the certainty of a real relationship with a personal, active God; others may have lost that faith and look back with nostalgia and regret at a simpler childlike trust as something little different from belief in Father Christmas; others may never have had faith, but still have a yearning for deeper meaning; a sense of the transcendent. Into those doubts and longings, there is often the pull of a desire for, a searching hope for, something meaningful even when we feel the best life can offer might be ‘fair fancies’.
Thomas Hardy, that great poet and novelist, gave the most powerful and moving expression to that sense in his poem The Oxen which I offer to you as a Christmas greeting, and an early ‘farewell’:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
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I’m gradually getting round to typing up some of the poemy prayery scribbly things I’ve written for morning briefing in school over the years. Here’s one (with an embarrassed nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins):
Glory be to God for mundane things:
For skies of cast-iron grey; for nil-nil draws;
For lukewarm lunches eaten on the hoof;
For jokes that make you smile, a bit; for bores
Who mean well; and for wedding rings
That won’t come off; rain dripping from a roof.
Exalt, if you will, those who cannot think
Quite what to put on their CV; and praise
That bit of flat land near the sea.
Regard the unlooked at picture, and then raise
A glass and drink a toast to your kitchen sink;
Divine the divine in a song in minor key.
Praise God for mangers, mustard seeds, and spit;
For sycamore trees, Samaritans, and salt;
For water, wine and vinegar; for blood;
For pilgrimage, but mostly for a halt
Along the way. Thank God for making it
To this new day. That’s quite enough. That’s good.
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It is eleven years ago today that mum died. Those eleven years seem to have passed very quickly, yet that day itself is hazy in my memory. I’d spent a lot of time in the hospice with her when we thought she might die at any moment, but after a few days I needed to go back to my own family, and I was in school when the news came from my sister that she had finally breathed her last.
I had a bit of a moment at work today, not only because of mum, but thinking of dad in hospital and how I’ve allowed work to get in the way of getting over to see him. As it seems to be getting in the way of pretty much everything that isn’t work, and lots of things that are, for that matter, just now. Fortunately it was a training day so I wasn’t in front of a class and between a bit of staring into the middle distance and swallowing hard I don’t think anyone noticed. I get moments like that more often when there isn’t any particular anniversary though. Often it’s when Katie does or says something that makes me think how mum would have loved to see or hear her as she loved all her grandchildren, and of course her own children, and countless other peoples’ too, for that matter.
That scrap of paper above, with the papal rosary mum wore round her neck in the hospice, contains the jotted prayers I wrote when we had a little ‘service’ at a bunk-barn in Settle for mum’s 70th. One of the lines was: ‘we thank you that she has lived to see our children born and growing’ and I always feel a little sad that Katie is the only one of her grandchildren that she never did get to meet.
Maybe when we take Jack to university on Sunday, I will have another of those face tightening, lip biting moments as I remember mum hugging me goodbye as she and dad left me at Oxford. I couldn’t imagine then how much I’d miss her.
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Katie left this story for me to read today.
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