Sunday 25 December 2016

Simple gifts

We know what it is like to be divided in Scotland. It is hard even to remember that time from our youths when these divisions did not exist and could not even be imagined. “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” Now we have gone through a year of division in the whole of our country. I never thought I would see the day in Britain where people tried to block the result of an election. But it shows how deeply they feel about the loss. So too in Scotland. It’s all too deeply felt, if not always on the surface, then bubbling below and waiting always waiting. Sometimes there cannot be a political resolution. This is the fault of politics. We expect too much from politicians. We somehow think that all will be well if my side of the debate wins, or if my party gets more votes than your party. But none of these things matter. Not really.

What has given you the most happiness in the past year? What has caused you the most grief? Think about the people that you know. Someone will have lost a wife or a husband. Someone else will have had a child. Someone got married or met someone special. Someone passed their exam or got the job that they were looking for. Someone else failed. All of the ordinary events that affect our lives have much, much more importance than the result of elections. This is not to be selfish. It is to be human. Our small circle of family and friends are what bring us the gifts that we value. But none of these gifts can be bought.

Where I used to live Christmas was more or less ignored officially. The day where everyone celebrated was New Year. The 25th of December was just another working day. New Year had been turned into Christmas except Father Frost was blue and Snegurochka was cold and found it impossible to love without melting. There were New Year trees and there were New Year presents. People had a large New Year meal and sent New Year cards to their friends and acquaintances.

I much preferred this way of doing things. Those of us who wanted to mark Christmas did so on the 7th of January (Orthodox Calendar) and this celebration was small scale. No-one made much of a fuss. No-one would be involved except close family. If there were gifts, they were simple gifts.

I wish it were that way here. When I walk to my bus I see some houses put up flashing lights from late November onwards. They put them up too early and take them down too early. They have no conception of the twelve days of Christmas, because they think that Christmas starts sometime in late autumn. Why is there a need to demonstrate that you are celebrating Christmas? I think it is because you are not celebrating Christmas at all. The more lights on the house the less thought and feeling there is about what is actually being celebrated.

The shops are now shut for one day only. Early on Boxing Day morning you will be able to go to the supermarket again. Yet people will go around the shops on Christmas Eve as if they have to survive a nuclear winter in a bunker. How many times your normal calorie intake can you actually eat without becoming ill? If you start at ten in the morning and keep drinking until midnight how big a headache can you actually create for yourself the next morning? How many people who you only see once a year can you fit into your house? Everyone feels they ought to be having the best time of the year. The duty to be merry is overwhelming. Merry Xmas. The X marks what is missing.   

How many people are there in Britain who dread the approach of Christmas? They feel the demand to spend more than they can afford on presents and on excess. How many of us sit down to the task of writing Christmas cards with pleasure. For most it is simply an obligation, a task and something of a burden. I don’t want your card and you don’t want mine, but we feel we have to waste our money on the card and the postage. For what? Who invented all these things that we must do in December? Was it a baby boy who was born some two thousand years ago? No. It most certainly was not. His message was rather different. The message of Christmas is not about eating to excess. It’s about not being able to find a place to stay. It’s not at all about spending large amounts of money, because there was in fact no money to spend. The only gift of importance that was received on the first Christmas day was the gift of life.

It isn’t something expensive that your loved ones want from you. It’s something free. They want your love and your kindness. Every child would prefer this to the latest toy. They might not realise this fact, but they would. Of course we should give gifts. But is there a need to do so to excess? We should indeed have a special meal at Christmas, but is there the need to eat quite so much. Do you even like Turkey?

Christmas today has become the antithesis of the first Christmas. Worse than that it causes suffering and causes people to forget what is important in their continual attempts to spend more, eat more and drink more. It’s a free country you can do what you like. But there is an alternative.

In O Henry’s “The gift of the Magi” a couple realise that they don’t have enough money to give each other gifts. The man sells his watch to buy his wife a hair piece, while his wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain. Both end up with something that is now useless. But what they really give has a price beyond rubies. They give love.

This is the simple gift that you should try to give this Christmas. It doesn’t matter if you think that the first Christmas never happened or that it happened rather differently from the way that it is told. But let us try to at least not do anything contrary to the message of the story. Otherwise we profane it.

Make your gift simple this Christmas. Give something priceless. But such things are not made of gold, frankincense or any other substance that is useless to a baby. They are quite free and they are made only of love.