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I apologise in advance, dear reader, but this is going to sound a little bit sermony. Maybe you’ll forgive me, in the spirit of festive cheer?
When I was a mite, I was made to go to Sunday School, and thus to be in the nativity play, every year of my childhood. If I cast my mind back, I can recall the smell of the hay in the wooden crib propped steady by a hymn book so the plastic baby doll inside it didn’t roll out. My bare feet remember the blue carpet leading up to the raised platform where a little cluster of us small girls, baby angels, stood while Herod slaughtered the innocents on the main stage below. Mum still laughs about how I took it upon myself to repeatedly knock on the helmet of the poor lad who got the role of soldier, and had to stand directly in front of me.
There is an obvious symbolism to that, this year, isn’t there? Angels tapping insistently on the heads of those who slaughter innocents? Who knows, since they are actual angels, rather than a naughty little four-year-old in a tinsel halo, maybe they’ll succeed. I hope so.
Much better behaved children than I ever was. Or than my own wee cherubs were, come to that.
I’m torn, writing this. I want, of course, to begin by wishing you the very, very best of the festive season, with all the joy, warmth and celebration that should bring. But let me quickly follow it up by saying I know you may be one of the many people for whom that wish may ring hollow, this year more than most.
This year, there are more children than ever who will go to sleep on Christmas Eve dreaming only of a safe home and enough food to keep away their hunger, both in the “civilized” West, and beyond. Too many people are separated from their loved ones, some forever. In the words of the UK MP Layla Moran, whose family are sheltering in the Church of the Holy Family in Gaza, where an elderly woman and her daughter were recently shot dead by a sniper in cold blood, “this year, the words of the carols stick in my throat.” In the midst of such misery, it seems callous, if not inhuman, to wish you a blithe “Merry Christmas.”
And yet, says a little voice in my ear, there is a reason Christmas does not fall in summer*.
We are at the darkest point of the year, the solstice when, for many ancient peoples, the sun dipped behind the horizon and seemed to die. With bated breath, they waited for it to rise again, and blazing logs, twinkling stars and firelight are all remnants of the rites they used to encourage it back to life. Christmastime is the darkest-before-dawn hour of the year; the deep midnight of the human soul. This year, more than most, we feel that darkness, so vividly we can almost touch it.
Darkness, cold, chill. Words that evoke so much more than the absence of light. They whisper to us about the worst that is in us as human beings. Callousness, cruelty, lack of care for each other. The despair looms so large, doesn’t it? Like a great icy blizzard, freezing all hope. In the face of such overwhelming heartlessness, what can we do?
We can refuse to succumb to the storm.
In the deep midwinter…
Christmas, Yule, the other many, many religious and folk festivals that fall at this time of the year, exist not just as hope, but as hope in darkness. They remind us that when everything seems most hopeless, that is the time to look to the heavens and find a star. To light our own small candles. To sing our carols, even if, especially if, our voices waver, and the words stab at our hearts. To sing defiantly of love and hope, when the great wave of despair wants to wash over us.
While we do so, we do not forget those so much less lucky than us. We hold them in our thoughts, and we believe with all our strength that the sun will come back for them too. We will them to endure through their dark midwinter so that we can celebrate with them when the thaw comes.
I hope you won’t think I’m being trivial, or even sacrilegious when I write the next part: this is why we retell our winter tales, whether they are holy lore or make-believe. Stories are the vessels of hope, and for me, they are as sacred as hope itself. They remind us how important it is to believe in each other, in the human spirit, against all odds.
The magic of stories…
One of my favourite characters in my much-talked-about YA novel, which is supposed to be out by now but we-don’t-talk-about-that-and-it’s-coming-in-the-New-Year-you’ll see, is a priest called Father Walsh. I lost all faith in organised religion around the same time I was being frog-marched to Sunday School, but I still believe in a force for good in our world, and I have a special fondness for those people of faith who genuinely embody the goodness they preach.
One of the reasons I’m so fond of my Father Walsh is that he believes in the value of stories. Here’s what it says at a moment in the novel when everything seems hopeless.
“Don’t stop believing, Joe,” he says. “The greatest stories are great because they remind us to believe.” He catches my eye in the rear-view mirror and gives me a wink.
“Whether it’s a weak little creature saving Middle Earth, a cowardly boy given courage by a lion to slay a witch of snow and ice, or even a baby sent to grow up and save us all from evil and sin, the best stories remind us that good can win out, eventually, even against the greatest of evils, if only we don’t give up our hope. If only we can reach down inside us, beyond what we thought we could do, and find courage we didn’t think we had.”
“Stories come back to us when we’re most afraid, and they give us the courage to go on. They tell us that when it seems hopeless, when the night is blackest black, that’s when we have to have the faith to hold on for the first rays of dawn.”
“Here,” he says. He slips the silver cross from around his neck, reaches back and presses it into Joe’s hand. “May it be a light for you in dark places.”
“Tolkien?” queries Joe.
“Ah, the Lady Galadriel.” Father Walsh looks between me and Joe, and his eyes are twinkling. “If she really existed, Joe, I wouldn’t be a priest.”
So this Christmas, I wish you light in the darkness, when all other lights go out. More – I wish that you find a way to be that light in the darkness for someone else. Every smile you give to a stranger on the street, every small snippet of conversation you have that leaves the other person happier than you found them, makes you far more important to holding back the darkness of midwinter than any Christmas wreath. There are more good people in the world than bad. There is more reason to hope than to despair. Better light a single candle than curse the darkness.
And if you’re not sure what to give that special person for Christmas – might I suggest you buy them a book, and gift them that unique spark of magical joy that resides in a really, really good story.
* Unless, like my cousin, you are reading this from the antipodes, in which case, I apologise and raise a nice cold beer to you.
ABOUT F.K. MARLOWE
F.K. Marlowe is a Shropshire lass who lived in London and Beijing before settling down with her husband, three daughters and rescue pup in Vancouver. She writes horror stories with a tendency to the paranormal, and Young Adult fiction with fangs and sass.
Marlowe doesn’t worry overly much about the placement of semi-colons and the like, having spent far too long pootling about in academia to take them seriously. (She has an Oxford first in English Lit, plus a Master’s and PhD from Leeds). She has, however, discovered that life is the best education for a writer, and plans to continue her studies there as long as possible.