There is no doubt that yuletide festivities, which can be traced back far beyond the time when Christianity appropriated them for its own purposes to celebrate the birth of the one they call Saviour and Lord, are associated with the Winter Solstice, the time when, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is at its lowest point on the Southern horizon. The festivities themselves may have been prompted not only by the primitive fears that the sun might not return to warm the fertile land for the next planting and harvest, but also by what is now aptly called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), ”a kind of depression that occurs at a certain time of the year, usually in the winter,” as PubMed puts it. Which is why, of course, that everyone goes around at this time of year with rather brittle joy, as though under an obligation to smile and celebrate and sing, something which, for those of us who are not so minded, becomes oppressive and, indeed, depressive. Despite the best efforts, then, of those who are sworn to these festivities, this time of year can be, and indeed, often is, a time of even greater sadness and melancholy.
Trying to convince us that they are not the Grinches who stole Christmas, atheists and other nontheists or antitheists or agnostics make a special effort at this time of the year to find an excuse to celebrate along with all the rest, even though it is hard to say what it is they are celebrating, although having fun and spreading joy around seems to be reason enough to do it. But there is also a reason, it seems to me, to set aside, at this time of very fragile joy and shallow festivity, time to dwell a bit more on the fact that life is sometimes not all that joyful, and that there are reasons to reflect a bit more on the more sobering aspects of life. This seems especially so for those who find there is little to celebrate. During the time when I functioned in the church as a priest, I seldom thought what it meant to those who were sorrowing to be faced with the obligatory cheer that Christmas foists upon them. I had never really thought much, myself, about grief, though I knew that grief could, in fact, predominate in people’s lives, often for years, and I tried, as a priest, to do my best to bring comfort to those in sorrow. But I had not really experienced any substantial grief over my lifetime, until, suddenly, I was pitched, not unexpectedly, but it seemed, precipitously, into grief myself. And then I knew what it was like to be faced with cheery faces and the insistent joyfulness that worked at such cross purposes with my own continuing and growing sense of loss. Trying to get in the “Christmas Spirit” in those years when Elizabeth was failing, and failing more and more, was a trial, not a comfort. Nor do I find it a comfort now, and I do not think this feeling will simply go away. I sublimate my grief by fighting for the right of those who are suffering to receive help in dying, and doing some philosophical duelling online, but it always lies somewhere in the background, and is brought out most intensely when people think that I should be joyful on demand.
It’s a bit different this year, however, for this year I simply wish the whole thing would just go away. The joy and the anticipation of Christmas seems to me, this year, to be simply empty and pointless. I remember, when I first started up this blog, that I did a piece on roughly the same theme, though, that time, I addressed myself to the problem of suffering, said that Christmas was bad news for the dying, and spoke about the pretence at the heart of Christianity that there is no need to faint or grow weary, for Christ the Saviour, who by dying and rising again defeated death, had once been born in Bethlehem. Today, I simply want to express my sense that a season of joyfulness is too artificial, too factitious, and often too cruel. I remember Elizabeth’s last Christmas, and what a trial it was, how it was more an obstacle to be overcome than an occasion for celebration, and I realised, what I had not realised before, that joy is not a seasonal thing, but comes, when it does, from deep within the individual life, and comes best when it comes unexpectedly and gratuitously.
Recently, we had the spectacle here at Choice in Dying, of witnessing someone defending the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus as history, when it is as obvious as can be that they are myths, since the two accounts that we have in the canonical gospels, in Matthew and Luke, are so different from each other, and, indeed, record inconsistent events. In Matthew the infant Jesus is at risk of Herod’s anger that a rival king had been born, and so the Holy Family flees into Egypt, so that the prophesy may be fulfilled that “out of Egypt have I called my son.” However, in Luke, there is not even the slightest hint of these dramatic events. Following the birth, Jesus is taken up to Jerusalem, where he is recognised as the one who would save Israel, and old Simeon recites the beautiful Nunc Dimittis (beautiful however untrue). In Matthew there is no sign of the inn or the shepherds or the wise men (the magoi — Magi — from the East) or the star, for Mary and Joseph apparently live in Bethlehem. Luke, on the other hand, has to find some way to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem so that the baby should be born there, in the City of David (although Raymond Brown, the Roman Catholic biblical scholar, who has now been gathered to his ancestors, points out that Jerusalem would be more appropriately called the city of David, since it was he who made Jerusalem his capital).
But at the heart of both stories is the account of suffering. In Matthew there is the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents (exile and death); in Luke all the hotels and motels are booked solid, and the Holy Family is relegated to a barn (alienation). And these events foreshadow the later suffering of Jesus, and his death on the cross, an apotheosis of suffering which has, since that time, put a halo around suffering, and dignified and sanctified it, and made a cult of it. Indeed, Jesus himself is later made to say things that encourage a life of disciplined suffering. If your eye offends you, he is supposed to have said, pluck it out; or if your hand offends you, cut it off; because it is better thus to go heaven than to be condemned to hell. Though during the so-called intertestamental period (that is, the time from the end of the Old to the beginning of the antisemitically named New Testament) there had been increased speculation about an afterlife either of suffering or reward, probably deriving from Zoroastrianism, it took Christianity to introduce hell to a wider audience, a belief which Islam adopted with detailed and gloating enthusiasm.
But the real lie at the heart of this season of false joy and empty hope is that death has been defeated, and the Light of the World has been born. And all this is just nonsense, really. People say, and I suppose we must believe it true if so many are convinced by the idea, that their religious beliefs comfort them, and allay somewhat the fear of death and grief at the loss of loved ones. I used to take that for granted, although I found it hard, for my part, to believe it true. It’s part and parcel of religious belief. And yet, looking back upon those beliefs I once held, or thought I held, or wished I could have held (I’m not sure where religious faith belongs amongst those options), it all seems so tedious and mendacious somehow. For I take no comfort in the thought of the birth of a Saviour, and even the idea of a word from God — how could we ever know? — seems pale and lifeless now, and, as so many examples demonstrate, destructive. People talk about the importance of religion to community, and yet, looking around the world today, the divisions and ruptures between people on account of religion seem far more obvious consequences of religious belief than any healing that religion might bring.
And that brings me back to Christmas. This is not a healing time of year. It is a fling, perhaps, and a great opportunity for businesses to make big bucks, and a time for partying which I would not begrudge those who wish to party. What I find depressing about Christmas is the obligation to be joyful. I don’t like being joyful on cue, but, more than that, I don’t like paying religion its due. I don’t like to celebrate the apotheosis of suffering, and, at its heart, that’s what Christmas is. The strangest thing is that, at Christmas time, even though suffering is right at the heart of it, and people go out at the midnight start of Christmas day to recall the suffering of Jesus on the cross, people do not, in my experience, want to hear of suffering, at least not real suffering. And Jesus’ suffering is not really real. It’s the kind of idealised suffering that is supposed to mark victory over suffering and death. But it doesn’t. For if you can’t talk about real suffering, and real dying, and real grief, and real fear, at Christmas time, then where is the victory? And in my experience you can’t, not at Christmas time, which is why this time of the year is really hard for those who are sick or dying or grieving. The tinselly joy of Christmas cuts across people’s real lives, and will not allow that life can be cruel, and desperate, and very sad. I no longer wish any one a Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas. It’s just one more turn of the screw for those who are not merry, and do not see much to be merry about.