The longest night, the shortest day, the turn of the year – and I think likely the oldest of our human celebrations, once our remotest ancestors began to pay attention to things. They would have noticed, and in the fullness of time, erected monumental stones to mark the progression of the sun, the moon, the stars, the seasons, the light and the dark and all of it. The farther north and south you go from the equator, the more marked are the seasonal differences in the length of day and night. Just north of the Arctic Circle in the year I spent at Sondrestrom Greenland, those mid-summer nights were a pale grey twilight – and the midwinter days a mere half-hour-long lessening of constant dark at about midday. It was an awesome experience, and exactly how awesome I only realized in retrospect. How my ancestors, in Europe, or even perhaps in the Middle East, would have looked to the longer days which would come after the turning of the year; the darkness lessening, sunlight and warmth returning for yet another season of growing things in the ground, and in the blessed trees, when the oxen and sheep, and other domesticated critters would bear offspring. And the great primitive cycle of the year would turn and turn again, with the birth of the Christ added into it in due time.
Of course, Christ wasn’t really born in mid-winter – that was not the time when shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground – but the promise of His birth, of light and joy and sunshine was added retroactively to those pagan festivities marking the longest night and shortest day. (Likely Christ was born in the early spring.) Christmas and Easter, the pole-stars of the Christian year and liturgy; the birth and the sacrifice; I’ll not get into the other pagan parallel observances. The colors of the paraments and vestments went through their turns – green, red, purple, gold and white, and usually not much linked to the absolute seasons. But still – there you are, the turning of the year, the festivals and observances and all, marking the time and tradition.
I was thinking of this, listening to one of my own personal observances last Wednesday; the live radio broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols from the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge. I’ve never been to that service – but I visited the chapel, once upon a time. The chapel was light and beautiful, walls of glass and fragile-seeming stone tracery, a late gothic bubble floating on the gentle green-lawn bank of the Cam. The Nine Lessons and Carols has been a tradition since the end of WWI … a little short of a hundred years, a brief time as the traditions of Christianity go. And I was thinking and wondering as I listened, and wrote and surfed the Internet – how deep do those traditions actually go in these days. One of the internet stories that I scanned – about the established church in Germany – contained a riveting phrase:
Christmas in Germany is like a brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside. The forms of the holiday are merrily observed, but not the faith. To declare one’s belief in a personal God counts for proof of mental defect here as well as in most parts of Europe, especially among educated people.
A brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside…which reminded me again of that summer of 1976 when my brother and sister and I did England and Scotland the Youth Hostel and BritRail Pass way. And being well-brought up, we went to church services at the nearest available and interesting-looking church wherever we happened to be on a Sunday morning. To be fair and to acknowledge that anecdote is not data, on most of those Sundays we were well out in the countryside. There usually wasn’t much else to do on a Sunday except go to church … but still, even thirty-five years ago it was perfectly plain to us that most of those churches visited in England had the lovely sanctuaries, soaring music, beautiful, comforting ritual … and mostly empty pews. Only in a couple of Presbyterian churches in Scotland did there seem to be anything like a full house and passionate enthusiasm from either minister or flock.
These days, whenever I see a story in the Daily Mail or in the Telegraph which touches on matters of faith, I can depend on most of the comments posted to be utterly contemptuous of religious belief and faith – especially for Christians of whatever denomination.(To be fair, they are usually contemptuous of Muslims, but also and worryingly – of Jews.) This is both baffling and dispiriting; I’d not be surprised that readers of The Guardian and similar high-toned publications consider sincere religious belief to be infra dig and that appearance in one of those beautiful and historic houses of worship is obligatory only twice yearly and on the occasion of a wedding, christening or funeral, if that. That Daily Mail commenters seem to feel the same … is unsettling. I would guess that if anything, the Daily Mail is aimed towards exactly the demographic – blue-collar, working-class and not educated much beyond the English equivalent of junior collage and trade school. Backbone of the country, salt of the earth, they used to say, somewhat patronizingly. I must note that my three British grandparents and great-aunt Nan were exactly that sort. In the US, that exact demographic is also the backbone of the various established churches. In the main and quietly for the most part, churches are the quiet bulwark of many communities. They offer emotional support in the main, and quite often actual economic support when needed to members in good standing and often to those without any standing at all. This I know from having been involved in church work, and through having lived in Utah (where the LDS is the quiet power behind the throne of ordinary politics).
There is a cultural value in religious belief; a shared belief lending confidence and strength to a culture – strength such as in Poland within living memory led to the downfall of a Communist system – just to name one. Yes, it sometimes lead to petty and hypocritical things – unlovely sanctimony, judgment of neighbors and vicious clannishness with regard to those designated as outsiders being the least of it. But somehow, this seems to have all been drained away, the limited bad and the solid good, all together. As far as Christianity goes, Western Europe does appear as a brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside – a hollow thing, easily smashed.
Share and discuss – whither Britain and Europe generally?
(Crossposted at www.ncobrief.com)