Christmas has a more seriously troubling side to it. For many people it’s a reminder of how things might have been; of disappointment and loss. Perhaps it brings into sharp relief the strained or shattered relationships that are part of life for so many.
A few too many beers in the sun and tensions had boiled over. His brother-in-law rounded out the afternoon with five stitches above his eye. ‘More pudding anyone?’
It doesn’t always work out the way we anticipate. But at what point did Christmas come to be something to be endured? How has the season to be jolly morphed into a jolly joyless ritual? The weeks leading up to it don’t help – cramming work functions and end-of-year school concerts into the final weeks; dragging your feet to overcrowded shopping temples for panic buying of mass-produced tosh that will become landfill by New Year.
None of this is conducive to inner peace. Nor are we helped, probably, by clinging to incongruous traditions like roast dinners in 40-degree heat. A few years ago the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in the UK reported that more than 6,000 people will end up in hospital on December 25th, all from the perils of the day – opening packages with box cutters, turkey carving under the influence, and burns from candles lighting up Christmas trees are standard fare at emergency departments, as are injuries from heavy gifts falling on heads from cupboards.
We can laugh at that, but of course Christmas has a more seriously troubling side to it. For many people it’s a reminder of how things might have been; of disappointment and loss. Perhaps it brings into sharp relief the strained or shattered relationships that are part of life for so many.
Associate Professor Michael Baigent, Clinical Adviser to Beyond Blue, the national depression initiative, says Christmas can also be a time of increased stress, disappointment or loneliness. “It’s a time when many people focus on their losses, for example, family separation as a result of distance, divorce or bereavement. Christmas can bring back painful memories or evoke strong emotions.”
But the original Christmas story, now so obscured by clamouring consumerism, gaudy lights, and sentimentalised nativity scenes, ought to be a message of profound hope, and it remains so for many people today. American theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that the task of the Christian community is to witness to the world that “God has not abandoned us”. It’s a message that many could do with this Christmas.
St Matthews church in Manly, a wealthy beachside suburb on Sydney’s northern beaches, runs a soup kitchen on Monday nights. It’s a gesture of kindness and has gradually built up something of a community of people for whom life has taken some hard turns. Some of their regulars live in parks, others in the bush, and several couch surf between friends. As is frequently the case in these situations, drugs and alcohol have taken their toll.
This week the church put on a Christmas dinner for the regular soup kitchen folk. Word had spread that the party was on and 50 turned up to be fed barbequed prawns, steaks and desserts, to sing a few carols, and to receive a hamper of Christmas gifts to take back to wherever they were to reside that night.
Diana Aitken, who helps run the soup kitchen each week, says it’s a chance to treat people and let them know that someone cares for them. “It makes a difference”, she says. “Many of them are lonely and they come for the company. Christmas is a difficult time for them, but it seems to help that they feel connected and part of a community. They feel better about themselves.”
Interestingly, Diana says the soup kitchen is the highlight of her week. We all know the church has some serious flaws, but it has its moments that provide glimpses that perhaps God has indeed not abandoned us.
The first Christmas can’t have been easy for the mother and father of the baby born in a stable among animals and straw. A pregnant teenager a long way from home. Her confused husband trying to come up with a plan. Fleeing to Egypt as refugees from a tyrant intent on murder. No doubt life wasn’t panning out the way they had intended either.
Yet wrapped up in that strange and ancient story lies a promise of something better that still resonates today. The infant born in obscurity who, so the story goes, came from God and was a light for the world in its darkness. It’s a narrative that claims to provide a window into a possibility of redemption and reconciliation, not only between humans, but also between God and us; a source of hope.
It has been and will continue to be that for countless people, from those who’ve found themselves living in the park, to others estranged from those they once lived with and loved. And even the bloke who wants to land a head butt on the forehead of his brother-in-law over the annual family dinner.
Simon Smart is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity.