Bishop Mike Harrison says our celebrations will be 'different' this Christmas
The prospect of Christmas somehow being cancelled or ruined this year by Covid and associated restrictions has slowly receded as some rules are relaxed around Christmas day itself.
But still the large scale banquets, the carolling, the school Nativity plays and the large gatherings have had to be reduced, removed or radically reimagined.
Everyone knows this Christmas will be different, but no-one quite knows how it’s going to feel.
Nevertheless there will be celebrations, however different.
And that in itself is really important – celebrating is in our blood as human beings – New Year’s Eve, birthdays, Mothering Sunday, Valentine’s Day…the list of opportunities for partying is ever-expanding, not least because there are profits to be made out of highlighting festivals (witness the take off of Hallowe’en and Father’s Day in the UK during the last couple of decades) – partying is becoming an ever more costly business.
But this theme of celebrating goes back way before commercial interests ever got involved – to the most primitive layer of human life and culture – from the very earliest of times sociologists have shown how human beings can’t live without holidays and feasts and celebrations.
Even recent anti-religious, militantly sober societies such as the former USSSR had its own feasts and spawned its own cycle of celebrations such as ‘the Day of the Week’, ‘the Day of Women. And with these celebrations usually go common festal rituals like processions, parades, flowers, singing, music, recreation, relaxation and food.
Where does this need to celebrate come from? Perhaps from our need to rest as well as work. We have to work to live, but we cannot work without rest, and the festival marks out a special kind of rest, a moment of joy and enjoyment. It allows us to savour what is, rather than rushing on. And there’s more to festivals than this. Through our celebrations, through our partying and through our feasting we are giving some kind of meaning to our work, to what we do and who we are.
Birthdays celebrate who somebody is and implicitly if not explicitly affirms their value; wedding anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Mothering Sunday and other times mark out the importance of particular relationships, suggesting that much meaning is to be found not in work or our labours, but in our life together.
The Russian writer Alexander Schmemann once said: “Tell me what you celebrate and I’ll tell you who you are.” Schmemann is challenging us by these words, asking us to consider whether our celebrations are rooted in relative trivia, narrowly egotistical concerns or something deeper. Hopefully what we are celebrating at Christmas 2020 is something deeper than a month-long extension of Black Friday deals which ends with a roasted bird and an orgy of ripped paper.
Hopefully what we are rejoicing in is the relationships in which we are set (or at least some of them), taking time to sit back and savour, appreciating the value of who and what is in our life.
And of course as a Christian, I would suggest, at the heart of it all, is celebrating a God who comes among us as light in our dark times, to illuminate a path to being true and authentic human beings, in the footsteps of Jesus helping others.
-- With Bishop Martin away, the Right Rev Mike Harrison, Bishop of Dunwich, has stepped in to write this week's column