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The best of times, the worst of times

December 24, 2020

I can’t imagine that there’s anyone, in Britain at least, who doesn’t feel, as I do, that this is the strangest Christmas. On the radio, festive schmaltz, carols and desperate good cheer. Decorations all over the house with nobody to admire them. A late December wedding postponed because Tier 4 struck in London before my elder daughter and her beloved could make it to the registry office.

A turkey, smaller than usual, ready to undergo its transformation and consumption, but over a longer period than normal because there are only two of us to enjoy it. Presents for our little grandson – whom we won’t see on the day because he would be upset not to be able to come into the house – left outside the front door for our younger daughter to collect.

In Kent, ten thousand lorry drivers stuck on a motorway and in a disused airport, desperate to get home to their families. No supplies, nowhere to defecate other, presumably, than on the side of the road. Hospitals full to bursting while hundreds of thousands of Londoners take to the trains and seed the rest of the country with the mutant virus.

The self-appointed High Pharisee of Brexit, Nigel Farage, popping up like a demented parrot, squawking about deviations from the scriptures, and his allies in Parliament preparing to scour the text of the proposed UK-EU trade agreement for satanic verses. Nicola Sturgeon forced to abase herself in contrition for a COVID rule infringement that ranks somewhere around the bottom of the Barnard Castle Scale.

People separated, alone, fearful. Or not alone, surrounded by nurses and doctors in masks and visors, but not by those they want beside them. The rest of us praying for the text message or letter telling us when to show up for our vaccines. Some of us, nervously glancing to see if any the neighbours are watching, greeting our loved ones outside our front doors or, if the coast is clear, sneaking them in for a few precious minutes.

Sikhs, whose faith-mandated generosity reminds us of the richness of our multi-ethnic society if only we opened our eyes to it, once again taking to their kitchens and providing hot food to those who need it, including to the Italian, Serbian, Turkish, German and Montenegrin truck drivers piled up through no fault of their own in the fields and highways of Kent. Many other acts of kindness no doubt cheering up the lonely and the isolated throughout our plague-blighted villages, towns and cities.

On TV, if you can avoid the ghastly news bulletins, a parallel universe. Mask-free people everywhere. Simon Russell Beale dressed for the summer, exploring the origins of Christmas Carols. A couple of enthusiastic media types wandering around Scotland in search of ancient yew trees, festive food and cathedral bell ringers. And, later today, the Kings College Cambridge choir with their annual carol service.

Avoid the festive stuff and go to the social media, and you’ll find Donald Trump plotting military coups and pardoning war criminals. Examine your Christmas sweater and you might discover that it was made in China. By Uygurs in labour camps, you wonder?

As exhausted diplomats bursting out of their ill-fitting suits prepare to present their handiwork to the politicians, you prepare to decide whether we’ve been betrayed, defeated, narrowly escaped a meltdown or emerged triumphant, our independence secured and our control taken back. Or whether we’re about to see the next episode in a catastrophic act of self-destruction.

Not that any of this is of much relevance to those who eke out an existence of sorts in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, or who wait in Calais for an opportunity to cross the channel in a leaky boat in search of a promised land. Or others across the globe who are picked on or picked off because of their religious and political beliefs, their social status, their gender or simply because they are weak and their oppressors are strong.

Yep, a strange Christmas, and yet not so strange. The difference is that in other years, if we chose to do so, we could safely ignore the perennial contradictions of the festive season and turn inwards for the comfort of family, friends, parties and silly squabbles. Not this year, when so much fear, loneliness and uncertainty sits on our own doorsteps.

And yet those of us who have made it through this epic year can say to ourselves we’re still here, and where there’s life there’s hope. We’ll see you all at Easter. Next Christmas will be very different – a reversion to the norm. So we hope, we pray, though in our hearts perhaps we don’t expect.

And behold! Outside, in my garden, the first daffodils (above) are making their tentative appearance. The solstice is past and the days are getting longer. Reminders that some things are bigger than us, and happen without our permission.

Some will not make it through the next year. Perhaps me. Yet most will do what we always do: make little plans, big plans, dream of better times and try to keep living despite our nightmares.

Those of us who believe in deities will seek comfort from our faith and from those who share it. Some will give comfort too. The rest of us might console ourselves with shared values and a belief in the potential goodness of humanity. Perhaps we’ll burst into tears at a video of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy performed by a musical flash mob in a European city square. Or perhaps we’ll quietly resolve to be kinder, more generous and more willing to forgive each other for our failings in the year to come.

If we’re so inclined, we’ll probably never have a better opportunity to indulge in a few moments of quiet contemplation than during this festive yet not festive season.

Whatever Christmas means to you – a holiday, a sacred time or the enjoyment of festivities of a different religious tradition from your own – I wish you the best of times, even if you’re living in the worst of times.

  1. Oh my goodness, that’s a Yuletide Tour de Force Steve. A top-notch Chrissie Pressie and a genuine privilege to read. I’m not a “man of faith” myself, but I do love Christmas. Good on ya mate, and I hope that you and yours have a real belter.

    “Wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
    – Charles Dickens – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’



    • Thanks Ronnie, and a lovely quote from the great man. Best wishes to you and yours. Next year in Torremolinos… S

  2. That just about sums it up, Steve. What the heck am I doing, still in the office in Riyadh at 9:30pm on Xmas eve? Preparing for a solo Xmas and a game of squash tomorrow, grateful that I was able to get away for a month of lockdown in Crete in November (that almost cost me my job).

    Stay safe, and keep writing. Not all of us have the time, and very few have the ability to express things so eloquently.

    • Thanks Doug. A month in Crete – you must be charged up! Perhaps that’s why you’re still in the office… Best wishes and enjoy the squash. S

  3. baritone2 permalink

    So good as usual, nailed the sentiment totally. Best to you and yours.

  4. But we need a Sydney Carton to sacrifice himself for us.

  5. Reminders that some things are bigger than us, and happen without our permission.
    Worth holding on to. Thank you, Steve

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