The Spirit Of Christmas


We all have our list of essential ingredients for a Happy Christmas. For some, they must include the Child in the Crib, the carol singers, and candle lights at Midnight Mass. For others, the essentials include the tree, the tinsel, the mistletoe, the holly and the ivy. For most of us, giving generously and a desire for peace go without saying.

Over the years, those essential ingredients, like a good plum pudding, have been well mixed together. For a long time, Christmas has been a healthy combination of Christian celebrations and a mid-winter festival. In the cold and bleak dark winters of northern Europe, it is natural that we should want to look forward to the return of the light and heat of sunnier days.

It is increasingly commonplace to decry the loss of many of our Christmas traditions and the triumph of commercialism which has taken over Christmas. But who among us would want to return to the dismal Dickensian Christmases, when servants worked throughout Christmas Day and were patronised with their "Christmas Box" on the day after?

Good, old-fashioned values - if they are to be pursued - must be sought, not in misty-eyed images of the past but in the message at the heart of Christmas. At the heart of that message is the promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards all, a message first delivered to poor shepherds on a bleak, mid-winter night in Bethlehem. Christmas would not be Christmas without Bethlehem and without the message of peace.

But while we might say there is no Christmas without Bethlehem, on this morning that same Bethlehem is without Christmas, and the city is without the message of peace. There are no trees, no tinsel, no tourists, and no shoppers. There is no demand for room at the inn as pilgrims are frightened away by both the intifada and the harsh Israeli military crackdown. Manger Square is blocked off by troops and armoured vehicles, preventing Yasser Arafat from attending Midnight Mass. There is obviously no peace, and there is certainly no goodwill.

If the Three Wise Men followed their star and trekked across the desert tonight in search of the message of peace, what response would they receive when they called at the courts of the rulers in Jerusalem? They could hardly expect to receive directions to Manger Square. But as they returned to Babylon, they would hardly be surprised by the news of yet another massacre of innocents engineered by another suicide bomber on a crowded bus, or another military incursion in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. And as they headed back to Babylon, what hopes and fears would they carry with them? That we face more hatred and violence throughout the Middle East in the coming year? That war is imminent in the region? That in the dark and dismal Christian west, they sing Christmas carols without really praying for peace on earth and goodwill towards all?