The electric lights go down; candles send out a softer glow, and we all settle into the familiarity of carols we have grown up with. There’s a remarkable peace to carol services: for an hour, you aren’t shopping for presents or meals, travelling across the country to visit family, or navigating the holiday traffic. But rather than inaugurating a period of tranquillity and rest, carol services mark the beginning and end of their reign. Christmas day itself is characterised by effort. And I don’t just mean the labour of food preparation or feigning gratitude for the book you have already read. It’s rather that it takes a whole lot of effort in trying to be perfect. Christmas is composed of a series of decisions that, on any other day, could be taken with the utmost ease. But when you are trying to all get along and love each other perfectly, give the perfect presents, receive gifts with perfect humility, and feel perfectly satisfied with all you have, there is a propensity to turn molehills into mountains. It could hardly be otherwise when one day becomes the object of two months of overthinking.
Disappointment is all-pervasive, and unfortunately no day is immune from it. If only I had used Nigella instead of Delia. If only x, y or z could have come. If only it had snowed. If only it hadn’t rained. If only we were still one happy family. If only we could afford… The possibilities are endless. Then comes the New Year and the time for making resolutions so that you can pull your socks up so that next Christmas truly can be perfect. Because by then you will be inches thinner. Nicotine-free and fluent in Spanish, living in a redecorated house, plastered with photos from your year-out.
Of course, even if you saw those resolutions beyond February, it would make diddly squat difference.
Because Christmas isn’t something to be triumphed over: managing to park in town on Christmas Eve- tick; getting Heston Blumenthal’s Christmas pudding before every Waitrose this side of Timbuktu runs out – tick; enough cards sent and received to feel affirmed- tick; polite smile maintained for 3 weeks- tick. No, Christmas represents the triumph.
O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant
Oh come ye O come ye to Bethlehem;
come and behold him born the King of angels;
O come let us adore him Christ the Lord.
At Christmas, we remember how it can be that we don’t have to try any more, how God’s love came to us undeserved and out of the blue. It’s reassuring and deceptively comforting to try to buy people’s love. But Christmas should be a release from that- a reminder that love happens amidst unloveliness. It comes when an innkeeper tells them to shove off. It comes when a fiancé tries to run. It comes when a girl feels unwanted and alone. That’s how it came then, that’s how it comes still.