On Friday mornings the bells of Saint Philip Neri Church on Chesterfield Road call the faithful to mass with Beethoven’s immortal ‘Ode to Joy’.
As an irredeemable secular sinner, I often wonder how many people turn up.
However, one thing’s for sure, come midnight on Christmas Eve, all manner of folk will pack the pews, the majority of whom, throughout the year, might only see a prayer book at weddings or funerals. S.
Despite Yuletide’s tarnished 21st century image, courtesy of Black Friday, that imported manic mayhem of grisly greed, sickeningly pretentious TV commercials for over-priced ‘fragrances’ and John Lewis tugging at your tear ducts, Yuletide is still something to treasure.
In ancient times before Bibles and crosses, Christmas trees, crackers, iPads and rapidly expiring credit cards, this was a time when the only way to cheer yourself up in a dark, frosty, muddy world without electricity was to take the mid-winter sting away by a family gathering around a blazing fire.
That sense of comfort and relief remains and is why Christmas Eve can be an oasis in our commercial desert.
As the afternoon dies down, you know the shops have closed.
For a few hours you’re in that pleasant limbo between anger and sore feet and the arrival of the family ready to devour your turkey and plum duff. Stoke up the fire, open a bottle, put your feet up, nibble a chestnut. It’s more or less over for another year, unless you’re masochistic enough to face the January sales.
Perhaps that’s why Charles Dickens, to whom we owe much of our modern Christmas imagery, set his immortal ‘A Christmas Carol’ on Christmas Eve. The 24th December is more magical than the rest of Yuletide. It’s the night of expectation, introspection; Santa’s still on his way, but closer now. You still don’t know what’s in those bumpy parcels beneath the tree, and the turkey’s still thawing out.
But Dickens had something eternal to offer. He wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in October 1843 - completed in one draft and already a best seller by Christmas that year - to point out the vicious inequality, greed and economic cruelty of Victorian Britain. Politicians such as ex-PM John Major sought to return us to something called ‘Victorian values’. Subsequent governments seem to be fulfilling his mission. If Victorian values encompass food banks, nurses and carers struggling for a 1% pay rise, and the bedroom tax, whilst the rich become richer at the expense of the poor, then there’s a lot about modern Britain Dickens would recognise. Ebenezer Scrooge was just one character. Today, he’s become an unreformed army.
Despite it all, for these few hours in deep midwinter, most of us can still pause and reflect on what Yuletide offers. In the light of our Christmas tree let’s think about happier Christmases past, the people we love, those we sadly miss, and raise a glass to a better world in the New Year.