18 December 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The glow of warm light in winter darkness remains the most potent symbolic association that the approaching days of Christmas possess.

In towns and villages throughout our county, a great deal of effort and no little expense is incurred in garlanding the streetscapes with festive lights.

The impetus for this is ostensibly commercial, the creation of an atmosphere conducive to lively trade and the maximisation of the enhanced opportunity this time of year offers for the businesses that are crucial to the healthy functioning of our local economies.

But the governing impulse is perhaps of a deeper, purer sort, a communal expression of the desire for the warmth of human company that is more plainly discernible in the efforts that families make to brighten their homes with festive illumination and decoration.

Christmas is a time of homecoming – literally so for the many Irish people who earn their living abroad and who make great efforts to trek back to their native place for the holiday season.

But there is something in the crisp air that makes us all cleave towards the hearth of home as the last days of December ebb out, an instinct to embrace the security of our familiar domestic haven and shelter by the lights we create to defy the darkness of the dying year.

True, the feast day itself is usually preceded by frenetic involvement in the commercial bustle that is often cited as a betrayal of the true Christmas spirit, but we seem to harbour a need for such a stressful prelude as a conditioning for the rest and reflection that we expect to follow.

It is hard nonetheless not to be conflicted about the meaning we strive to mine from the Christmas concept when it is subsumed in the lures and empty glitter of commercialism and marketing, hard to evade the nagging feeling of emptiness at some point in the post-Christmas torpor that prompts us to ask what all the fuss was about.

Anxiety about infidelity to the profound spiritual meaning the season has, at least for those of Christian conviction, is not a modern malaise. In the 17th century the great metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan lamented the breach in observance, chiding those who: “…stick up the ivy and the bays,/And then restore the heathen ways.”

Vaughan had no doubt where the epicentre of Christmas meaning resided: “The brightness of this day we owe/Not unto music, masque, nor show:/Nor gallant furniture, nor plate;/But to the manger’s mean estate.”

In their 2014 Christmas message, the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland Bishops of Clogher defining an abiding legacy from the Bethlehem birthplace of the modern celebration that continues to resist the accretions of the profane: “For some reason which Theology can never quite explain, Christmas brings hope,” they observe, “…Christmas remains the great season of hopes and dreams.”

The modern Christmas is still woven with sufficient symbols and associations with the sacred to allow those of spiritual outlook to find it meditative and meaningful. And Vaughan would be further reassured by the many manifestations in those of even deeply secular outlook of the instinct to gift and give that prevails at this time of year, not just in material ways but through their time and companionship.

The activities of those organisations working in our community to assist those in difficult financial circumstances and with special needs grows more intense at this time of year, and assistance of all kinds is never more gratefully appreciated.

Irish people have grown more discerning with their charity, partly because of their own limited means and partly due to the way in which the principle of spontaneous giving has been betrayed by those who have built a vested self-interest into the practice of gathering funds in the supposed interest of worthy causes. But the Irish nature is still conspicuous by its generosity, and it is not hard to identify areas of need near our own doorsteps that could benefit considerably at this time of year by a little of our money or our time.

As Vaughan advised: “What you abound with, cast abroad/To those that want, and ease your load./Who empties thus will bring more in;/But riot is both loss and sin.”

The poet’s chastisement of the over-indulgent continues to pertain to the season, particularly so in the context of the annual campaign conducted by An Garda Síochána to ensure that our roads remain accident-free over the Christmas and New Year period.

The Gardaí will be among many providers of essential services for whom the imminent “holiday” period will be an onerous and busy one, and they are due the co-operation of all community-minded citizens in their endeavours to prevent the season being blighted by the destructive effects of reckless and selfish practices by roadusers.

That we continue to observe the rituals and traditions of Christmas in an age of insistent modernity and irresistible change speaks to some of the deeper needs we possess as human beings, those interlaced with companionship, family and the altruistic instinct to reach outside of ourselves to make the lives of those around us a little better when we can.

In the lights of Christmas hope abides, and the trouble and confusion of the modern world is transformed for a time into the “close and holy darkness” which Dylan Thomas evoked in his own childhood memories of the season.

We wish all our readers peace and rest for the festive season ahead, and the realisation of their own hopes and dreams in the coming New Year.

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