Here in the UK we have cold weather for only a few weeks every year. We have snow in the North and on high ground but here on the coast it’s rare. So, when we get a cold snap we tend to catastrophise a little bit. Over dramatise. I daresay that those of you who live where there is real snow, crunchy stubborn deep stuff, think that we manage to both over-react and under-prepare. Two faults which don’t, sadly, cancel each other out. When I lived in Canada for a few months I left before the real winter set in but I was already impressed by the talk of snow tyres and chains, and the little electric point outside the front door to heat the car and stop it icing up. I could have done with that electric socket today because last night I turned the car around so that I don’t have to go up the glassy hill in the morning. OK, it’s not exactly preparing for an outing to the North Pole but it’s my version of Laura Engels in The Little House On The Prairie, taking in the hens, shutting up the barn and hunkering down against a blizzard. Unfortunately, as if to mock my amazing cleverness, pointing the car that way meant that the driver’s door was exposed to the worst of the cold and this morning I couldn’t get into it at all. Two kettles of boiling water later, the driver’s door was still stuck but now the road all around the car was an icing rink, so I put some salt down. Still couldn’t open the door, and a passing neighbour had a go. Nothing happened. He helpfully suggested hot water so I pointed to the once-hot water now-ice. ‘Ah’ he said. He had another go. I said ‘Let’s leave it. I’ll go down later when the sun’s out.’ but he’s a man and men don’t like to admit defeat. He yanked and groaned and braced and yanked some more. Bright idea! He managed to open the passenger door, clambered in, crawled across to the driver’s seat and …. got stuck. Properly stuck. Eventually he unfolded himself and put both his feet against the driver’s door and pushed, and then kicked. It opened. Phew!
It had taken only 35 minutes to get in the car. Now all I had to do was wait for the screen to clear.But of course, this is 2022 and we’re not totally unprepared – there’s a box of rock salt at the top of the hill and…. erm…. well, that’s about it. The gritting lorry trundles on the main road into the village but it doesn’t go on the lanes and it stops even before the bus route ends.
Laura Engels and the blizzards of the Canadian prairies probably popped into my head because I’m enjoying a lot of Canadian fiction at the moment. It’s strange how so many of my favourite writers come from either America or Canada – poetry from Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and (most of all) Billy Collins, and novels by Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Strout, and Mary Lawson, and while we’re at it, why are the best short stories so often either American or Canadian? We have a few good short-form writers of our own, I suppose, like Saki and D.H.Lawrence, but America is knee deep in them. I don’t think you could go for a coffee in the States without finding a writer at the next table, observing wryly, and quietly making notes. You might even end up sitting next to Bill Bryson, that gentle American Anglophile. Wouldn’t that be something?
Anyway, that’s a segue. What I wanted to talk about is snow. Sort of. I have a couple of little tableaux in my windows, in one window there’s the angel and the shepherds, and in the other there’s the wise men and a couple of camels, and the holy family.
Yesterday, as I was clearing the ice off the car, a mum walked by with her three little lads. They paused to look at the angel window, and stood there in silence. Then the youngest wandered off down the hill, past my front door and found the second window “Look” he called, interested now, “Camels!” The others caught up with him. Again a short silence, as they took in the scene. The mum said “That’s lovely, isn’t it?” The boys nodded. Then the middle one said “But where’s the snow?”
That made me laugh (and I’m not going to go all po-faced about it) but there’s no denying that we’ve created such a load of myth and nonsense and false imagery around the greatest story ever told that somehow we are losing sight of it. We’ve hidden the truth under a great mound of rubbish. This little lad, probably about 9 or 10, has seen cartoons and adverts and imagery about snow and snowmen and penguins and reindeer galloping across the arctic wastes, and he thinks this is Christmas. Is it any wonder that some adults sneeringly refer to Christianity as a ‘fairy tale’? We’ve allowed the world to turn it into one. Christmas is a tree loaded with lights and baubles, with a fairy at the top and chocolate hidden in the boughs. Christmas is sentimental films and TV specials. The stable is a pretty little wooden shack, the wise men are magnificent, Mary is beautiful and the …… Oh, hang on….. my little statues in the windows are a part of it, all twinkly lights and ….. oh, dear. I seem to be the pot, calling the kettle black. We’ve all bought in, at one level or another, to the marketing hype and nonsense.
Listen, I’m not Scrooge, all ‘Bah humbug!’ and misery. I love Christmas and I do hope for a little dusting of snow but it struck me, as those three little lads walked on to school, that when we forget the true, harsh reality of Christmas we miss the wonder of it too.
The birth of Jesus was a hard harsh time, a cruel bewildering time for a young teenage girl, a poor couple, in an occupied land, with the most basic conditions – dirt floors, a bed of straw, the company of animals, the smell of dung, lantern light, rats, the sudden cold of the night after the dry heat of the day, aching feet, weary bodies and fear. Mary didn’t have her mother nearby to comfort her and see her through labour, Joseph didn’t have the menfolk to sit with, waiting for the cry of his son, they were in effect homeless, stranded in a village they were simply passing through, without any of the familiar customs of childbirth.
But God. Into this, Emmanuel.
Why? Why? That’s the question. Into the dust and dirt of the Middle East, why? Into the shame of a pregnant teenager, into all that poverty and distress, into a country ruled by tyranny and savagery, came the creator of all things. Why?
Because love. Staggering. Love beyond our undertsanding. It’s the moment that all of history looked forward to and now it’s the moment that all of history looks back to. The pivotal moment of existance. Planned from the beginning of time.
Isn’t that a billion times more exciting, dramatic and radical than any man-made, sanitised Disney version? Doesn’t that make us pause and think, forgetting the tinsel? How much God loves us. I mean, how much God loves us. That’s the true wonder of Christmas.