CHRISTMAS SPIRITS

21 December 2018 No Comments by The Northern Standard

They say that Charles Dickens invented much of the traditions and practices that still attach to the modern Christmas. If true, there are others who would say that he has a lot to answer for.

But we cannot hold the great novelist responsible for everything that people sometimes describe complainingly as the cloying sentimentality or excessive commercialism of a time whose essence, even going back to the pre- Christian era, is entwined with the ethereal and spiritual. Indeed it is perhaps more Dickens’ interpreters than the writer himself – who possessed a burning social conscience and an antipathy towards cruelty, pomposity and avarice – who are guilty of fabricating the quaint, cosy and unabashedly self-indulgent picture of Christmas feasting, carolling and forced family conviviality that still beckons alluringly to us from seasonal cards and other tableaux.

And the era of Dickens had none of the intrusive sophistication of social media to trouble people’s contentedness, and only the beginnings of the rampant and inescapable commercialism that all too often tramples the spiritual dimension of the season now upon us roughly underfoot. And if “Boz” were writing now, he would surely rail as vehemently against contemporary examples of inequity, poverty, intolerance and greed as those he pilloried in the Victorian era. But, if Dickens has a case to answer for the deeper meaning of Christmas being lost, he has bequeathed a sturdy brief to his defenders: his wonderful story A Christmas Carol. True, its habiliments are somewhat never-never and sentimental, but beneath its surface beats the heart a remarkable and remarkably prescient fable of spiritual desolation turning slowly to self-realisation and redemption.

The “grasping, scraping, clutching” miser Scrooge, “secret, self-contained and solitary as an oyster”, has embedded himself in popular culture as a symbol of all things antithetical to what is sometimes described as the Christmas spirit. But an alternative reading of the story, one that chimes closely with the current in contemporary society for self-realisation and mindful occupation of the present, is to see Scrooge as the mirror of each and every one of us when assailed by the storms of life: a lost soul who has taken refuge deep inside himself, chasing away friendship and companionship because of a past traumatising hurt.

Scrooge’s transformation into the open-hearted benefactor of all and sundry is accomplished through a darker variant of a traditional children’s story device: rather than the good fairy it is the familiar Victorian trope of the unquiet ghost (and Dickens was a master of the traditional ghost story form) who leads the miser on his journey to redemption. Scrooge communes with the spiritual and abandons the cheap glister of his accumulated wealth and material trappings in order to find himself, or more properly reawaken the true good man lost long ago in grief and disappointment and despair. Many people nowadays are engaged in a similar spiritual or self-discovery journey, using the wide palette of meditative, religious or alternative lifestyle practices in common circulation to make themselves better people or heal and come to terms with past trauma. The ghosts that accompany Scrooge through his long night of the soul are the spirit guides and spirit helpers, the supernatural angels or the mortal sages, many in modern society turn to in their search for meaning and peace of mind; a figure often dismissed as an outmoded Victorian caricature is in fact a very modern and complicated individual struggling towards the light.

We are all, perhaps, a little Scrooge-like at this time of year – wounded and tired by what 2018 has thrown at us, trudging our way towards the light of promised peace and rest that the holiday season soon to be upon us offers. In trying to rediscover the good inside us, this is a period when we are more disposed than usual to respond to the demands made upon our charity by those working in our communities to make Christmas time easier, less lonely and more comforting for those experiencing disadvantage or social exclusion. We should of course respond as generously as we can to such good causes – and often it is the gift of time rather than coin which is the most precious one, whether that manifests in a few hours’ volunteering or in a visit to a neighbour or relative. It is important to keep in mind that there are many ways in which the Christmas tradition of giving can be expressed.

For those of the Christian faith, the approaching feast is an important occasion for reflection and contemplation. In the joint Christmas message issued by the Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher John McDowell and the Catholic Diocesan Administrator Monsignor Joseph McGuinness (see page two), there is insightful commentary on the abiding significance of the symbol of the Holy Family, a timely reminder of the origins of our modern celebrations that all readers of spiritual sensibility can draw salutary meaning from.

Co Monaghan, and lately Monaghan Town and the North Monaghan area in particular, has enjoyed some very significant good news this year in terms of economic development and community advancement. As a nation we are nearing full employment again and have stepped a significant distance out of the shadows of austerity and downturn. But one does not have to search too hard in our county and country to find places and people that have not been touched by the prevailing good news. And the social disparity in our own midst is being replicated and amplified in nearby nations, a troubling sense of mounting popular disquiet finding violent expression on the streets of Paris, Budapest, Brussels and elsewhere. As with all Christmases perhaps, there are reasons to be cheerful and reasons to be thoughtful as we prepare to enter the holiday just ahead. The spirits of Christmas take many forms, and hopefully they will lead us all these days to places of ease, enjoyment, generosity and gratitude.

To all our readers, we wish the happiest of Christmas times and fair winds and fortune in the New Year soon to dawn.

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