I am making a heartfelt plea for a simple country Christmas.  The sort I used to have in my childhood – when all was well the world, the word ‘stress’ hadn’t been invented to describe a fraught mental state and my brother and I were happy to create paper chains indefinitely by licking the gum on the end of bits of coloured oblongs and sticking them into loops. It meant Christmas was approaching. I suppose our circumstances were romantic on the face of it although central heating wasn’t something we knew about and we could see our breath indoors on cold winter mornings. Our remote downland village didn’t get electricity until I was ten years old and my brother twelve. Paraffin lamps and open fires were part of life and we walked from room to room in semi darkness. Then on Christmas Eve when the tree shone with myriad candles we had clipped on precipitously  among the glittering baubles the hall was suddenly full of  light – a thrilling and tremendous  cause for wonder. 

ChristmasAlthough we didn’t realize its significance at the time, that lightening of the darkness was a true celebration of the Winter solstice.  Now though, with the flick of a light switch that magic has all but gone and the symbolism is lost.  We used to have ghost stories read to us on Christmas Eve but now I’ve got used to the X-Factor monopolizing the TV screen. We used to pick holly and ivy with other village children from Mr Laurence’s wood; now synthetic replicas decorate the table instead. Unless I go and live on an island any re-enactments of my childhood Christmases are virtually  impossible.

Over the decades every aspect of Christmas has been hijacked by mammon. The pressure builds as I write. It began in September with Christmas gift brochures plopping onto the doormat, bringing with them little niggles of guilt that I should be shopping already. Gradually it turns into a relentless crescendo of consumerism and by mid December Christmas shopping is embraced with a frenetic religious fervour – shopping malls become the new cathedrals and websites become the new gospels according to Amazon and Ebay. The actual Festival of Christmas and why we celebrate it becomes completely obscured.

But somewhere perhaps, beyond all the tinsel and  electronic games packaging a vague collective memory of the country origins of  midwinter feasting lingers on. For thousands of years we celebrated the Winter solstice and the lengthening days by tribal gatherings and revelry. Harvest was gleaned, theglut of food needed to be eaten and the bringing of evergreens into the house symbolized life and a primal unity with nature. That need for a stepping stone in mid winter with festive  carousing during the cold, dark days made it a powerful season and it wasn’t surprising that, in the 4th century AD, the Christians chose to appropriate it as a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

When so many of us have been swept along by the technological revolution and suffer from a general anxiety disorder through the multiple options with which our daily lives are besieged, we become wired, worried and irrascible. We desperately need grounding: literally bringing back to earth. Christmas can be a time to return to that mystic memory of greenery and get back to our far distant roots. The tradition of decking our country churches with holly and ivy is a seamless merging of  paganism  and Christianity and brings home the fact that we are part of long and deeply moving tradition. In our next door village of Baulking there is a candlelit 1662 service on Christmas morning in the small barn-like church of St Nicholas which serves the local farming community.  It is life affirming in its simplicity and wings me back to the Christmas mornings of my childhood. All is not lost.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Malene Thyssen


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