Tuesday, December 26, 2006

In Search of the Meaning of Christmas

Christmas – a time of excitement for children, greatly anticipated and eagerly awaited for many weeks before. For many adults too, it is a time of joy and happiness; an opportunity to excel in excess without too much of a guilty conscience: ‘well, it is Christmas,’ is the excuse all too often heard. For some, it is not the same unless as many family and friends are invited to participate in a communal festivity. For others, it is spoiled by the absence of those very same people, with new cases of depression reaching a peak during the months of December and January.

Most of these peaks and troughs of emotion are fuelled year upon year by a common falseness of expectation. Whilst Charles Dickens did much to spread the concept of what is required for that cosy traditional Christmas, much loved by the Victorians and promulgated to this day from the fronts of thousands of greetings cards, he was also responsible for building people’s expectations of what the perfect Christmas should be like; to the point whereby any lesser experience is considered to be a failure.

I often wonder whether I am a lone voice in standing out against the falseness of all we have come to expect. I would not go as far as saying that I dislike Christmas – especially as I am in the process of experiencing one of the best I can remember from within my adult phase of life. However, I can remember, since early teenage years, having a recurrent sense of unease regarding the futility of most Christmas activities. Even then, the only parts of Christmas that really seemed to hold anything special for me were those parts where I was expected to be present at the local parish church by virtue of my membership of the choir. The Family Carol Service on Christmas Eve, followed by Midnight Mass and then the Christmas Day Morning Prayer were the events which most pleased me and gave me a true sense of belonging. Everything else paled into insignificance or, at worst, became a trial of endurance.

In order for me to have an enjoyable Christmas I need to escape the commercialisation, the artificial expectations of conformity to traditions, the moral pressures to be with family and thereby suffer numerous conversations about inane subjects about which I have no interest, have probably heard many times before, and really do not want to have again.

For me, Christmas is about regaining my inner self. It is the one time of the year where I want to step away from the world in which I spend the rest of my life pandering to the needs of others. It is a period of time when I want to stop giving and instead wish, quite selfishly, to take; and what I want to take is time itself – time for physical and mental rest, time for quiet reflection, time for the re-charging of my spiritual batteries and, of equally great importance, time for the re-affirmation of my love and commitment to the person who has chosen to accompany me through the rough seas of life – my wife.

As a Christian, I do not believe that my duty of care to my fellow man is just at this particular time of year. Effectively, it is throughout the other three hundred and sixty two days of the year. The rest of the world can have its share of my time and effort after these few days are over. In the meantime, being shut away in the peace and tranquillity of the English Lakes has given me the most relaxing and regenerating Christmas I could possibly desire. For the first time ever at this time of year, I feel content and at ease, not only with myself but also the world around me.

It may not be to everyone’s desire. However, if you ever suspect that you harbour something of the same feelings, have the courage to listen to that inner voice. Stop bowing to the pressures of the masses. Make your stand: refuse to send numerous pointless cards that will only end up in a rubbish bin in a few days time. Instead, make a donation to your favourite charity. Then take yourself and the person dearest to you to wherever you think you will find the peace your heart desires. The experience will be uplifting and change your view against conformity forever after. Your true friends will understand and will still be there on your return. What is more, you will be the much nicer person for it.

I know that I, for one, will be entering 2007 re-energised and with an enhanced sense of benevolence towards my fellow man. Now, surely that has everything to do with celebrating the birth of Christ?

Postcard from the Lake District (3)

Christmas Day – 25th December 2006

Waking on Christmas Day morning to nothing more than the gentle sounds of wild ducks and swans, with the occasional call of a moorhen, a few gulls and the odd rook or two, must rank amongst the most idyllic moments in life. This gentle alarm call from nature is complimented as soon as the curtain is drawn back, when the gentle waters of Lake Windermere appear just fifty yards from the window. Set to a backdrop of the gently rising green fells, their tops just covered by a fine mist, and with one or two white yachts quite still at their moorings, the scene is one of tranquillity and peace.

The Lakeside Hotel commands one of the most picturesque locations on the lake. Situated on the south-western shore of the lake, just one mile north of Newby Bridge, this four-star hotel is the antidote to the fast pace of modern life. Guests have a choice of exquisitely furnished rooms or suites within the hotel itself, or can opt for one of the two Executive Lodges built within the hotel grounds but set apart from the main building and having the advantage of their own private gardens and moorings. Built in the style of a converted boathouse, the lodge in which I now write has been designed as a studio apartment, full of space, light, large picturesque windows and, yes, its own sauna.

Today, the lake is perfectly calm, thereby allowing a perfect reflection of the hills and trees in its glassy surface. Just to my left, on the opposite shore, the slopes of Gummer’s How rise away from the rest of the fells. At 1053 feet above sea level, it is the highest point in this area and, from its top, gives a commanding view of almost all of the ten miles of Lake Windermere. Indeed, when we climbed it two days ago, and despite a fine haze, we could just discern the sands of Morecambe Bay. From the same point, one could look down upon the land of the Swallows and Amazons along the lakeshore, whilst further south is Fell Foot. Now owned by the National Trust, Fell Foot was once part of a large Victorian Estate with extensive lakeside lawns and gardens.

The small, grassed garden of the lodge is like a meeting place for 'Woodland Friends'. A rabbit is usually in evidence, quietly grazing the lawn, unperturbed by our presence at the window. Just above the rabbit, on a piece of wooden fencing, sits a robin. Occasionally joined by a second robin, it flits back and forth, capturing the odd tasty meal disturbed by the rabbit. Within a few feet feed a cock blackbird and song thrush, whilst in a tree nearby, a chaffinch moves from branch to branch with a flick of white feathers.

A few miles to the south lies the village of Cartmel. Famous for its pocket-sized racecourse at which races are held on only six days per year, Cartmel is also home to Cartmel Priory. Built by Augustinian monks around 1200 A.D., the priory church survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and now serves as a wonderful parish church, with fine Renaissance screens and delightful misericords in the choir. It is a fitting venue for the celebration of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, as we discovered for ourselves last night. The warmth of the church itself, combined with the collective voices of a full congregation and choir, help one to touch base with the spirituality within us, reminding us as to what this time of year is really all about and building resolve for the forthcoming New Year.

With the excellent food of the hotel’s restaurant and some fine wines from its cellars (including a Chateau Chasse Spleen 1983, Chateau Leoville Barton 1993 and a Chateau Talbot 1994 and not forgetting an exquisite bottle of Tokay), accompanied by the resident pianist and a small jazz band, the celebration of Christmas 2006 will certainly leave this writer suitably refuelled with a sense of goodwill.

A very happy Christmas and healthy New Year to all my readers.

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for...