It's that time of year - twinkle lights are up, Christmas music's on - when children get excited. I always did - not just for the gifts I'd get but those I'd give: bought or (more likely) made - usually, in our case, all through the night from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning. But I think even more I anticipated the Occasion, the Family Event of the year when I knew by our particular rituals, more than at any other time, that I belonged to a clan.
It's the time of year, though, too, that grown-ups can get the blues. I find that I usually do, a little. It's lonely to not be a child at Christmas. Now I'm the one creating the customs, and it can even make me shudder: on the one side I see my new little family around our own little hearth, on the other side Night, and between the two just Shep and me, rubbing sticks together to make a circle of light. There's no illusion here.
This year, though, it occurs to me, maybe it's not inappropriate to feel a little grieved. We await, after all, a haunting mystery brought forth in the dark of the year: a baby born to die. It takes your breath away - the generosity, the humility, the love, the grim necessity (since we'd be doomed without it) - and it makes your heart thud, to anticipate Beauty himself, defaced.
What's more, even as we prepare to commemorate that the Light has come, here we are still waiting in the dark, for the Light to come again, at last, for good. We're standing brave against the night. So maybe it's not too outrageous to mourn a little, to feel a little pathos now, even if it flies in the face of jingle bells and snowmen and reindeer and santa clauses. Those are the only illusions, really - just the jingles of the merchandise. Christmas is about what's real.
Advent is the beginning of the church calendar, and it makes sense to me for the year to begin this way, with the first rumblings of war: God made flesh, dropped down into the territory of his one ancient enemy. In the end, he'll emerge victorious, but not before that darkest dark day of shaking earth, blackened sun, bloody moon. After that he'll break out, and there's not a sad thought then on Resurrection Day, only triumph and the groundswell of spring. But here we are at the beginning, in cold silence in the dark of the year. It seems you can't understand any part of this plot-line apart from the whole: it all leads up to Easter. Right now, you have a tiny, tender baby, peerless in perfection. It gives you goose-bumps and joy and hope and awe, and longing and grief and wonder and suspense. Not the trivial spiel of a commercial Christmas, it's better, wrought with all emotions, the Story Unsurpassed. Embracing this, I don't feel so melancholy. I begin to take great satisfaction in rubbing these sticks together. I find they do make quite a glow.