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The real meaning of Christmas

24 December 2017

4:00 PM

24 December 2017

4:00 PM

Each Boxing Day my mother would take out her pen and pad,
And estimate the cost price of those Christmas gifts we’d had,
From relatives and family friends. And when the sum fell short,
Of the monetary value for the various gifts she’d bought,
She’d write it in her ledger. Underlined in red.
So, Aunty Bertha, Mrs Bridges – to my mum, they were now dead.
‘A pair of socks for twenty pence! A slinky half as dear!
I’ll tell you this for nothing, son – they’re getting nowt next year.
I bought that cow some Matchmakers, not just mint, but orange too
And all I have is ankle socks – I hope she gets the flu.’

This reckoning became, for me, the point of Christmas tide,
A view which has not altered in the years since my mum died,
A special time of nastiness, vindictiveness and greed,
And of pigging out on turkey until your insides bleed,
The punch-ups outside Argos in the sales which never end,
Those saccharine injunctions from John Lewis that we just spend.
On vacuous appurtenances – a bright green reindeer cardie!
And the Channel 4 Christmas address by some deranged jihadi,
The drivel on the telly. Fake bonhomie, fake cheer,
Fake love, fake compassion – and those two words you scarcely hear,
Absent from our winterval lest someone take offence –
Jesus Christ. Oh, Him! Yes – rings a bell. In some half-forgotten sense.

And yet as I grow older I can now discern a reason,
For this strange, misshapen jamboree we call the ‘festive season’.
For month by month and without fail, we give it our best shot –
Then Christmas-time reveals to us everything we’re not.
Everything we could be – should be – but always fall short,
In our frailties and our failures. That’s the lesson, yearly taught,
And as the snowman slowly deliquesces on the lawn,
The cattle still are lowing, the snail is on the thorn,
We are not yet forsaken: somehow from up above, He watches…
…amused, appalled, distraught – who knows?
Yet still we have his love.

Rod’s poem was originally published in the Spectator Christmas special, out now


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