December 17th 2015
By Corin Child, Norwich School Chaplain
‘We pray for those among whom the Christ was born: the poor and helpless, the aged and young children; the cold, the hungry and the homeless…’ (From the Bidding Prayer used in the school Carol Service)
Family films on the sofa. Tree lights in soft focus. The scent of pine, cloves and oranges. The friendly advice of Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith. There are a hundred Christmas comforts that are like snuggling up in a warm blanket. When the clocks went back I asked a group of pupils whether they found the darker days harder to cope with. Quite a few said they actually look forward to it – because the winter season is filled with a certain sort of cosiness that you don’t find at other times of year.
There’s surely nothing wrong with any of this. The familiar features of a festival warm our hearts and bring us together. And yet we have to live with the fact that there is another face to Christmas. It’s an awkward paradox, but the moment we find comfort and contentment in the company of others, we are in a conspicuously different position to other people – whether they are down the street or on a different continent – who are lonely, restless or upset. This is the dark face of Christmas that we have to either shut out of our minds or somehow try and accommodate.
Several years ago I was eating Christmas dinner at the house of my in-laws. There were eleven of us round the table, and the atmosphere was convivial (by which I mean loud – there were five young children). My father-in-law, a vicar, had finished all his Christmas services; I was a curate in a nearby parish, and I had finished mine. We were all able to relax. Somewhere between the turkey and the Christmas pudding, however, the doorbell rang. This felt odd straight away – because on Christmas day all your attention turns away from the outside world to the house you’re in and the people you’re with. When we answered the door, there was a girl on the steps, perhaps in her early teens, who was in tears because she had been thrown out of her house. It was a little hard to follow, but we got a broken picture of problems at home and her mother’s temper that had all come to a head at the worst possible time. The light was fading, it was cold and damp, and it was difficult to see what to do, other than invite her in. The girl eventually calmed down and was able to eat a little food.
It would be wrong to represent the rest of the day as a simple, neat, heart-warming episode. Working out the best thing to do for a stranger in trouble is never easy, and trying to get through to social services on Christmas Day is no fun at all. I’m happy to say, though, that we did see the situation resolved over the next few days – and both the girl and her mother were grateful to the people at the vicarage who helped out on a difficult day.
I remember that year as being one where, between us, we looked into both faces of Christmas and reconciled them with each other. And it’s given me something to think about every time we come to the Bidding Prayer in the Carol Service.