At this time here in the northern hemisphere the earth is furthest from the sun and we are enduring the shortest and coldest days of the year. For thousands of years our pagan ancestors used these winter days to celebrate and look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. For them the end of December was a perfect time to do this – most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking; and animals, slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, ensured there was a supply of fresh meat for feasting.
In time Christians adopted this Winter Solstice festival to hold a celebration of their own, namely, the birth of Jesus Christ. They named their festival Christ-mas, celebrating, as we do now, how the Creator of the 13.5 billion years-old universe entered our 4.5 billion years-old planet in human form, beginning as a tiny vulnerable child born to a poor young Jewish couple we know as Joseph and Mary. Their child, born in Bethlehem, went on to be the man Jesus of Nazareth who gave the last three years of his life showing by word and example that every life matters and is loved by our Creator (whom he called Father).
So at Christmas, Christians can celebrate on two levels.
Firstly, we join with millions of people indulging in Winter Solstice fare – letting our hair down, eating and drinking too much, and looking forward in hope to longer, brighter and warmer days. For many it is a precious time for renewing the bonds between family and friends although it also can be a demanding, stressful and arduous time for others.
Secondly, we celebrate why Jesus became human and shared our existence. As he is a gift of love from God to us, we give gifts in love to each other. He taught that each one of us is not an accident but is precious to God and remains so even if we screw up or make a mess of the life God has given us. He showed us that to God I am a better than my worst mistake, that no sin of mine is greater than God’s love, and that with Him I can always begin again. For this truth was born; for this he died; and here tonight we celebrate it in our Christmas Mass.
I mentioned earlier that Christmas can be a stressful and even arduous time for some, not least for those preparing and serving food. If this is so for you, you might wish to heed the following practical advice for a peaceful Christmas from Jean-Claude Chalmet, psychotherapist, and published in The Times last Saturday. Here are three of his “Six Commandments for Christmas Family Peace”:
This is a day of peace and goodwill, and with that in mind you don’t have to be the host to insist, or even beg: “No talk of Brexit, religion or politics at the table.” None of these subjects mixes well with alcohol. You might suggest that anyone breaching this edict must walk four times round the table backwards while singing a song. And if people disobey and become shouty, say: “Er, that’s an outside voice — save it for the post-lunch walk!” Those keen to rant about Brexit, religion and politics can do so in the bracing fresh air — everyone else can trot ahead to discuss Succession and throw a squeaky ball for the dog.
Identify what sets you off and take a breath
Certain people are excellent at needling us. “You’re touchy!” they cry after they’ve said or done something outrageous and you’ve snapped. To change the Christmas record you need to, as we therapists say, do some work on yourself. That means being aware of and able to manage your triggers — the comments or behaviours that provoke an extreme emotional reaction in you.
Tell yourself: “I have no control over my reaction, but I do have control over my response.” (Your reaction is your gut feeling; your response is what you actually do.) And if your response is not what you would like it to be, consider why those particular things they say or do affect you so badly. Often it’s because they gel with the views of your inner critic — that harsh internal voice in our head (the ghost of critical people from our youth).
It also helps to analyse the needler — why, instead of controlling themselves, are they trying to control you? When you know the probable answers, you can pause in that moment of heat. You realise that you can choose to let them set your mood, or think: “Good try, but no, I’ll listen to my real self rather than what they, or my internal critic, is telling me.” That might translate as realising that you’re raging because this person always expects you to wait on them, and their latest breezy demand typifies the status quo. Take a breath and use humour to convey that they can get their own drink. Losing your temper might make an impression, but a calm cast-iron “no” is often more convincing.
Be militantly kind
This sounds more selfless than it is. Start with the principle that this year no one will puncture your party spirit. So if there’s a person you find difficult and vice versa, you might surprise them by setting the tone with a friendly approach or compliment. Your attitude is to be generous, but expect nothing back. Doing the right thing is your reward (sorry). It’s a kindness not an investment. If you expect niceness in return, you’re held emotionally hostage to their behaviour.
I wish a happy and stress-free Christmas for you and all your loved ones.
Holy Name, Jesmond