Spiorad na Nollag

I must have been quite small when I was brought to Pim’s department store in South Great George’s Street. It was coming up to Christmas and Santa Claus was due to arrive for his month-long stint at the grotto. 

There were other big stores in town, like Clery’s and Brown Thomas, but I was taken to Pim’s on the promise that something special would happen. And so it turned out. As we waited with the crowd on the pavement outside, a helicopter landed on the flat roof and Santa emerged, waving down at us five storeys below.

Pretty spectacular alright, but not quite the show I was hoping for. For some reason I imagined that when Santa disembarked from the chopper, he would parachute off the rooftop, floating gracefully to the ground below. Now that would have been a sight!

Another highlight of Christmas was our visit to the Moving Crib in Parnell Square. Every Catholic church in Ireland had its own crib featuring the traditional nativity scene of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus surrounded by several shepherds and assorted farm animals. What distinguished the Moving Crib was that several of the figures were not simply plaster statues, but mechanically-operated figures that, well, moved. 

Again, this famous attraction promised more than it delivered to an imaginative youngster like me. Firstly, the main characters in the tableau, the holy family, were static. True, the supporting players, such as the cow and the donkey, nodded their heads repeatedly but I don’t recall them doing much else.

Somehow, these two memories sum up the failed promise of Christmas, whether viewed from a secular or a religious perspective. It never quite lived up to my (admittedly lofty) expectations. Maybe this has to do with the uncertainty surrounding the feast. Is it meant to be a religious festival marking the birth of our Saviour? Or is it really a wholly secular knees up designed to lighten the gloom of winter?

Perhaps because we can’t decide which, our society has created a patchwork quilt of traditions and practices that reflect both sides of our nature, the sacred and the profane. So we have ended up with a mixture of mistletoe and Magi, turkey and Advent calendars, carol-singing and Christmas trees. The result is an oddly unsatisfying compromise that neither elevates us to the heights of religious enlightenment, nor leads us into the wild abandon of bacchanalian excess. 

We have been taught that Christianity adapted its beliefs to the prevailing customs of its potential converts. So although Jesus was probably born in the spring, his birthday was transferred to the end of December. This allowed the Church to absorb the pagan festivals of Yule and Sol Invictus into a new Christian feast consistent, more or less, with its teachings.

What emerged was Christmas, or in the Old English, Cristes maesse (“the mass of Christ”). As the etymology indicates, the centrepiece of the new religious blend was the Mass. 

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Catholic Church dropped its ancient liturgy in order to propitiate religious reformers. Fortunately I caught a glimpse of the sublime ritual that many generations of Catholics experienced, before the Mass was replaced by a pedestrian service firmly rooted in the here and now.

Was it the extinction of the Mass that made the contradictions inherent in the modern Christmas more apparent? 

Could everything be different?

With all sorts of possibilities opening up now in our strange new world, maybe we can make a fresh start and find the true spirit of Christmas. A spirit that lights up our little corner of the world – especially at this dark time of year.