In 1960 when I was eleven I was invited by my school music master, appropriately named John Fear, to join the Christmas choir at All Souls Church, Langham Place.
For those unfamiliar with London churches it is an imposing Nash building sited at the north end of Regents Street, next door to the BBC. The church has a strong tradition of evangelical Anglicanism and currently about 2500 people attend services or meetings throughout the week. It also has a good musical tradition although these days it is very different from the 1960’s when my music master was in charge.
In those days the All Souls Christmas carol service followed the traditional Anglican pattern of Nine Lessons and Carols by candlelight. Since I had a good treble voice I was singled out to sing the opening solo, the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”, at the top of the isle before leading the procession to the choir stalls at the front of the church.
All was carefully dress rehearsed and, wearing our red cassock and white surplice, we practiced slowly processing while trying not to trip over or set ourselves ablaze with our candles. You can imagine the picture – the innocent fresh faces of the choirboys, the wonderful colours and smells of Christmas and the traditional readings and carols. I was so proud and excited to have a significant role in such a great show.
Except that it didn’t happen! While on the way there my father’s car, a battered ancient Humber Hawk, stalled on Regents Street South and he couldn’t get it started for ages. So I missed my moment of glory, finally slinking into the choir stalls through the side door fifteen minutes late. The solo spot was taken by my arch rival, a boy a year older than me whose hormones had not yet kicked in.
Throughout life we all must learn the lessons of disappointment. We do not always get the job, girl or prize, and we need to accept this and move on. But to this day I can still recall the aching disappointment of my former self, the eleven-year-old boy.
Looking back this was probably the start of my disenchantment with the whole business of Christmas and all that goes with it. Hang on a minute someone will say, surely you are a Christian and Christmas is one of the great festivals of the Church?
Now please don’t get me wrong! I am no Ebenezer Scrooge shouting “Bah! Humbug” every few minutes. On the contrary I enjoy a party as much as anyone, and anything to brighten up the dull days of winter is to be welcomed. So we will have our (pagan) Christmas tree, roast turkey, pudding and no doubt the odd glass or three on the 25 December and we will make merry with the family.
But it is the whole cloying sickly sentimentality of the ‘religious’ aspects of Christmas that disturbs me. Christ was born in abject poverty into a refugee family in a country under brutal military occupation. He was then taken by his parents across the border to a foreign country to escape the homicidal rage of the local ruler. Does this sound familiar? Turn on the television today and you see that nothing has changed in two thousand years except that the refugees now carry mobile phones.
There are still millions of families in similar dreadful situations.
I listened recently on the radio to Fergal Keane, the BBC foreign correspondent, giving an account of a meeting he had with a mother in East Ukraine. She had had two children, a daughter and a disabled younger son who was doted on by his sister. One day the shelling started and, in terror, she tried to run to a neighbour’s house where they had a basement. On the way a shell exploded nearby and both children were torn apart by shrapnel.
It was clear that Keane was struggling with his own emotions as he told the story. I cannot remember his exact words but he implied that it was too small a war (only about 4000 killed so far) to shake the political powers into more than pontificating, while still having devastating effects on individuals and families.
The nonsense written on a billion Christmas cards of “Peace on Earth, good will among men” is simply not reflected in the realities of the world today, and certainly not in the Bible where Christ himself predicts “wars and rumours of wars” and “nation rising against nation”. The New Testament records the factual details of the birth of Christ but nowhere are we exhorted to celebrate his birth in the over-the-top way that the Church and the world does, starting in August. Indeed the only “celebration”, commanded by Christ himself, is the communion service - the bread and wine - to remember his death!
I think we live in a very conceited age where many believe that science and what is termed “rationalism” have answered all the questions. But a review of worldwide news should quickly dissuade anyone of that view.
I am not saying that the world has never been darker although I am beginning to wonder! But sadly at this time of the year the churches simply collude with the world and coat the Christian message with tinsel and glitzy wrapping paper to make it all presentable and acceptable. Most children today can’t differentiate between the baby Jesus and Santa Claus!
This is supposed to be a medical blog so to misquote Karl Marx, “Christmas is the general anaesthetic of the people”. It renders us insensible and completely oblivious to the painful realities of life.
So I am going to suggest an alternative bible verse for Christmas cards. It is regularly read out as one of the nine lessons, but seldom preached in churches these days. It is taken from the prophet Isaiah chapter 9: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (New International Version).
Until you have seen and acknowledged the darkness then you have no chance of seeing the light no matter how it is dressed up. I hope that of the many thousands who will make their annual trip to church this Christmas, some will avoid anaesthesia and encounter the truth of the one who claimed to be the light of the world.
I wish very happy seasonal greetings to all readers of Hospital Doctor, especially the poor blighters who will have to work on Boxing Day when half the world will turn up at the front door of all the Emergency Departments in the country, many suffering from an excess of merriment.