Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali comments on how we might celebrate Christmas during the middle of a pandemic. This post was originally published by The Article and has been republished with permission.
Hurrah! Christmas isn’t cancelled after all or is it only half cancelled or is it so deeply rooted in our minds and hearts, in family life and in the national psyche that it cannot be cancelled? The Government’s plans to lift restrictions on family gatherings, and some other kinds of socialising, for the few days around Christmas Day itself will be welcomed with a huge sigh of relief by a people battered by the lockdowns and other restraints on their usual activities. It has the danger, however, of creating a frenzy of travel and of meeting permitted relatives over a few precious days.
In fact, it is the whole season that is important in the run up to Christmas Day. This is not just for shopping, although the removal of restrictions on retail trade will be welcomed by both shoppers and shops. During Advent there are concerts, exhibitions and carol services galore. We should not forget that we are not only inherently social beings but also cultural and spiritual creatures. We crave socialising but we also need our minds, imaginations and spirits to be fed and never more so than at this time.
There has been much talk in the media about Christmas as if it were just a mid-winter festival of feasting and carousing. The arrival of Christianity in Europe, however, gave a new direction to these festivals. While customs, like the burning of Yule logs, the decoration of trees, the drinking from wassail bowls and the eating of ‘figgy’ puddings continued, Christianity introduced going to church, the importance of family gatherings and celebrations and, like Good King Wenceslas, remembering the poor and needy at this time.
Because Christmas was about God’s gift of his son so he could lead us back to our Creator, there was a new emphasis on giving and receiving. In gratitude for what we have received, we give to those near and dear to us but also to those in need: the homeless, the lonely, the strangers and the ill. As Jesus taught, there is nothing special in giving to those who can return the favour. We should also give to those who cannot give us anything but their thanks in return. This is why there are so many charities working to make sure that the homeless have shelter, the hungry have food and the ill clad have clothing, during and beyond this season. The work of organisations like the Salvation Army and appeals like Crisis at Christmas deserve our support at this time, especially for those affected by the pandemic whether in terms of illness, isolation or mental health.
The coming of God to visit us in the person of Christ, reminded people of the need to visit those who were ill, in prison or alone. During this pandemic, the lonely have become lonelier, the elderly at home or in care homes have been cut off from their loved ones and everyone has missed out on the daily social contact which keeps us going. It is most important, therefore, that there is as much visiting as is safely possible during the run up to Christmas and not only for a few days around the day itself. The possibility of quick and effective testing makes it more possible for the elderly in care, the disabled and those confined to their homes to receive visitors safely, with adequate PPE and distancing. It is good that this will not be in a frenetic few days just over Christmas, but stretched out over the month and, perhaps, beyond the season when people will need company even more.
When we go shopping, can we remember to buy for those who may not get a present at all, and around our table could we be allowed to have those who would otherwise be alone?
It is great that families will be allowed to meet. Again, to prevent chaos, this could be over a longer period, but what about friends? Most of us are sustained by strong friendships and these are usually nurtured at this time with the visiting and the giving and receiving. Office parties, lunches and similar allow work colleagues to socialise and to get to know one another away from desks and factory floors. Large scale events will not be possible, but can we find ways of smaller groups gathering safely? This will also be a boost to the hospitality industry.
Many go to church only at this time of the year. This may be for a carol or crib service or for Midnight Mass. The carol services, in particular, go on for the whole month to accommodate everyone wanting to attend. I do hope that some singing is possible. Choirs can sing, of course, but there is little more spiritually uplifting during this season than joining in the singing of carols. For some, it may be possible to revive the ancient custom of singing carols out of doors, safely wrapped up of course! I do hope, however, that some singing in church (even behind face coverings and singing quietly) will be allowed as Christmas services just would not be the same without it. This is a time for the churches to step up to the plate and provide the spiritual and social comfort that a pandemic weary nation needs, without being hindered by ecclesiastical or government edicts which go beyond that which is strictly necessary. Churches should stay open for prayer and reflection. They should be able to have the services they usually have during this season, if not more, and to work pastorally with those who need such support at this time of the year.
It is right that the authorities should make sure that everyone is as safe as they can be. The arrival of frequent testing, the availability of good PPE and the advent of vaccines should give us grounds for hoping that normal life will resume soon. It would be wonderful if during this Advent and Christmas we could have as much of a foretaste of what is to come as is safely possible. Much can be done if only we use our imagination and are generous in our attitudes and behaviour towards our fellow citizens. Let us make this coming season special as we look to a New Year that will be different from the annus horribilis we have just passed through.