ISN’T it strange how, even if you’re no longer religious, the words of some of the Christmas hymns can still move you?
Especially if they’re sung beautifully in an appropriate setting.
There’s a simplicity and a majesty about some of the famous lines from those carols. They remind you of what religion can mean — and perhaps in a way of what our religions have lost by their own distancing from the manger.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes — but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. You know the song, and I’ve never heard it sung so beautifully as it was by the choir in St Ann’s Church last Sunday night. It was their annual civic service of lessons and carols — all were welcome, including a few of us not used to darkening the doors of churches.
Except in my case, and unusually for me, it was the third time in a week. A few days earlier I had wandered in to a special service — for animals, no less — in Christ Church Cathedral.
A packed cathedral, many holding dogs on leads and a few with their cats, all singing the carols we all know. And on Friday I was a guest at a carol service given by the boys and girls of St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School, in association with their annual prize-giving.
Both these churches, Christ Church and St Patrick’s, are close by my office, and I’ve often wandered into one or other of them at lunchtime, for the history and sometimes the peace. But they are both transformed into something else entirely by singing, and especially by the singing of those beautiful hymns that you associate with your childhood.
But to come back to St Ann’s. Even if you don’t know Dublin well, I’m sure you know the church. It describes itself as “the church in the heart of the city with the city at its heart”. Its great red door is always open, and at this time of year the Vicar of St Ann’s sits outside in all weathers, conducting the Black Santa Appeal for charity (it’s called Black Santa because traditionally he wears a long black cloak against the cold).
The warm and welcoming civic service was over at a quarter past eight, last Sunday night. It was a cool, clear night in Dublin, and a pleasant walk from St Ann’s back to where I had parked in Ely Place.
Just around the corner from St Ann’s, in the doorway of the old Anglo Irish Bank, I came across the first homeless people. Two, huddled together already, with nothing visible to keep them warm. And then I saw the first Simon volunteers, chatting to another couple a few doorways down. They had flasks of soup and they were offering blankets. In the next 200 yards, on the most prosperous street in what is still one of the most prosperous cities in the world, I met eight more homeless people, preparing to spend the night on the streets. And I passed a busy, bustling, and gorgeously decorated Shelbourne Hotel, its warm light spilling out on to the pavement, its doors open to all who could afford to enter.
In Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and to come in the course of one night. That short walk, being able to see warmth and welcome, prosperity and destitution, the spirituality of glorious Christmas music and the hollow emptiness of Christmas decoration all in five minutes, was a bit like that.
And it reminded me of something else, that I thought about all the way home. If you’re a regular reader of this column you’ll know that at this time of year I’m sometimes given the extraordinary privilege of donning a red suit and a big white beard, and standing in for a certain legendary figure in some of the Barnardos projects around the country.
When you get a chance to do that, you meet children who are terrified at being in the presence of Santa Claus. They’re often the ones who had been in a state of high excitement before he arrived, but are then overcome by terror in his presence. You have to get down on the floor with them, to try to show them you’re not scary. And now and again you meet children who are too worldy-wise about Santa, but are content to play along because they know there’s a present at the end of the process.
But then you meet children who know, with absolute certainty, that they really are meeting Santa Claus. They hold your hand tightly, and they have all sorts of questions.
“There’s no chimney on my house Santa — will you be able to get in?” “Why didn’t you bring the reindeer with you, Santa – will they be with you at Christmas?”
When you meet kids like that, you don’t need reindeers to fly you home. The experience of seeing eyes lit up with belief and hope is always enough.
But this year I’ve been asked one question more than any other. “You will come back, won’t you Santa?” “You will be here?” I’ve seen fear in children’s eyes, the fear that they alone will be missed by a Santa Claus who is too busy, or even a Santa Claus who can’t afford to remember them.
The question is asked because too many parents, all over Ireland, have been forced to plant a seed of doubt. There are too many households this year where Santa Claus may have to pass by.
BUT we all know that Santa Claus exists. As long as there are children, he always will. Some years his bag is lighter than other years. Some years he has to pick and choose carefully. But if Santa Claus has to miss a child, we all suffer. It cannot ever be allowed to happen. Because that would be the end of Christmas.
We have a week to go, that’s all. Somewhere up there, the real Santa Claus is getting ready. Elves are working overtime, the sleigh is being stuffed as full of toys as it can carry, and the reindeer are busily stuffing themselves so they can be ready for one long, arduous, non-stop night.
And down here, all sorts of people are getting ready to help. You’ll see the local appeals in your town or neighbourhood, You’ll hear the ads on the radio. All of us want to make certain that we can help to fill that sleigh.
And of course, you’ll have your own pressures. Christmas isn’t easy for anyone. But think of it this way. If you’re buying, let’s say, four presents, it’s not going to break you to buy a fifth and donate it. Get your kids involved — help them to make sure that Santa Claus’s supplies don’t run out.
There’s only one thing better at Christmas than getting the present you’ve wanted all year. And that’s seeing the face of a child who is remembered, when they had half-expected to be forgotten. And if we can all help Santa Claus to reach everyone, it will really help us all to have a really Happy Christmas.
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