Carol Service 2017
I’m dreaming of a White Christmas… Prosecco, Champagne, Chablis, Chardonnay, sherry…
Whether you are dreaming of a White Christmas or not, we certainly had a bit of a white-mare last week, with showstopping snow, and icy pavements. Snow had fallen, snow on snow - and ice underneath! And then came the rain….
Come rain or snow, it’s been tempting to wrap up warm and stay home, safe and snug. The white Christmas we all dream of has visited us, and brought with it the mixed blessings of romantic Dickensian style snowplay, but it can also remind us of the similarly Dickensian state of poverty and deprivation to which we have returned, and the homeless people for whom snow and cold truly is a whitemare. For many it is a pretty bleak midwinter, to be honest, and Dickensian in more sense than one.
I have been saying for years that it was Charles Dickens who invented Christmas as we know it, kickstarting the carols of the second half of the eighteenth century, and now a major film cheekily called ‘The Man who invented Christmas’ brightens our cinema screens. So there is an irony that as we approach Christmas, it is both positively and negatively a Dickensian Christmas. We still have Dickensian cheer and goodwill, but we still have – or are returning to - Dickensian poverty at the end of a year that has seen much argument about how the poor of our nation can or should be helped by the state. The Grenfell Tower disaster is as much about poverty and power as safety, and much war and terror have darkened our TV screens this year. I’m reminded of that verse from ‘See amid the winter’s snow’, written in 1858:
Sacred infant, all divine,
What a tender love was thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this!
The past is a present – a gift - and it was Dickens, you might remember, who gave us Scrooge and Marley’s ghost 5 years earlier in 1843, in the same week that the first Christmas card was posted. At the time London was experiencing what has been called a mini ice-age, when the Thames froze over, and a white Christmas was normal. A century later it had become a dream:
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol made London the capital of Christmas, and it was St Paul’s Cathedral, old London town and the drinking of wine - red, white or mulled and spiced, that epitomised the season. The first Christmas Card, posted in 1843, portrayed a family having a festive booze-up, while recently introduced publications The Economist, and The News of the World were publishing their first ever Christmas editions. Meanwhile many Londoners were still flocking to see the newly erected statue of Nelson on its plinth in Trafalgar Square. Christmas Carols followed, the Bohemian martyr King Wenceslas was soon to became famous as a good snow-dinting, sod imprinting benefactor, and kindness to the poor became the name of the Christmas game.
We’ve not sung that this evening, and there are other Carols we haven’t had time too. For example, the Calypso Carol, the Cowboy Carol, the Donkey Carol and the new Brexit Carol: ‘Away with the stranger’… My new favourite, is the Gorilla Carol. Do you know it?: ‘King Kong, merrily on high’…
But from Kong to King - for here this evening we have regaled you once again with the Three Kings all dressed up, even though everyone knows they weren’t kings and there weren’t three of them. A bit of third century fake news, that.
Our world gets more complex, and Christmas is a complicated business too. It wasn’t invented by Dickens at all. The first recorded celebration of Christmas was in 354, 29 years after the Council of Nicaea moved the winter solstice from 25th December to 21st, thereby clearing the way for a post-solstice celebration of the nativity of our Lord. It’s still hard to get to the heart of Christmas, especially since half the population now believes it has nothing to do with Jesus. Politicians hijack it, and in the coming week we will be exposed to a series of ‘Christmas Messages’, penned or spoken by leaders of various kinds. As they seize the Christmas present moment, they will look back over the year and forward to the future. Her Majesty the Queen always has something to say, and invariably connects the season to her admirable, quiet, unflappable faith. Political leaders and comedians can’t resist joining in, with satire, secularism or simply showing off, and somewhere in the centre of it all the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury will get a word in edgeways too. But as we hear them - or dismiss them – as we sing carols, and hear again the message of the angels by candlelight - as we do our Christmas shopping online and put the prosecco on ice and the mulled wine on simmer, what lies underneath Christmas as we know it?
Well, Christmas is all about the past, the present and the future. It is about a past event that changed the world. Even if you do not believe one jot of the Christmas story, no one can deny it changed history. Our culture, our kindness, our families and friendships are defined by the message the babe of Bethlehem brings.
And Christmas is about the future – the eternal hope that we can carry forward as the days, years and centuries turn. The angels’ message of peace and goodwill, is the only hope we have for our communities, nations and our poor benighted blue planet. And it is all located in the present moment – the Christmas Present moment. The Christmas present moment which we relive and re-enter each year as we welcome the Christ-child; and with him, pray in hope for comfort and joy in this world and the next.
I’ll leave the last word to Ebenezer Scrooge himself:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Amen to that.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 17/12/17