Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Christmas and New Year Memories

I hope everyone had a good Christmas and New Year.

I had a busy holiday period myself-- a lot of visiting and socialising, at least by my standards. It all seems quite frenetic in retrospect. The mound of books I took from the library went untouched, apart from the one I had already been reading (and that I'm still reading).

It was the first Christmas without my father, of course. I was saddened by that, but it wasn't crippling. I missed him much more in the New Year-- I found myself remembering how he would always say "Next year in Jerusalem". (I presume he simply meant it as an expression of hope for better times.) I said it myself, to continue the tradition.

I wrote this article for the Burkean, which pretty much encapsulates my attitude to Christmas.

I stayed with family in the West of Ireland for some of the holiday. As is often the case, there was an animated debate about religion and politics. Most of my family are left-wing, and look forward to the advent of socialism. I'm not particularly right-wing economically-- in fact, I could join with them in denouncing zero-hour contracts and the gig economy, and supporting nationalisation of utilities. The fault-line between us lay more in our different attitudes to human flourishing. They are more preoccupied with poverty and wealth, while I am more preocuppied with culture, tradition and spirituality.

Of course, bread and butter matters are very important. If you are homeless, getting a roof over your head takes priority over every other matter. Or, as James Connolly neatly put it, "You cannot teach starving men Gaelic."

However, I suppose I would differ from them is that I don't expect (or even aspire towards) a radical transformation of our society-- or rather, the basic institutions of our society. I expect that more would be lost than gained by such a transformation. Nor am I opposed to inequality per se. People talk about a "level playing field", but I am rather of the opinion that "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be built"-- in fact, I think crooked timber is much more human and comfortable than straight planes. Of course, there are exceptions to this, such as the presumption of innocence in court cases, or the "one man, one vote" system of democracy.

I cherish the vision of Eamon De Valera: "The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit."

I travelled to the West of Ireland on the train, something I greatly relish. I adore trains and everything to do with them, but they were missing from my life for several years. In the last year, I've had a few train journeys and they've always inspired and excited me.

What is it about trains? I've thought and thought about this. Partly it is the seriousness, the purposefulness of rail travel. Trains have their own culture, their own ceremony, their own language. "The train now waiting on platform two...mind the gap...we will shortly be arriving in..." There's also a heaviness to rail travel that I enjoy. I like the thrum-thrum-thrum (or perhaps chug-chug-chug?) that is always in the background as you move. There's something exciting about it, and it fills me with excitement for life itself. I feel I am going somewhere and that life is an adventure.

I enjoy reading on a train, but must admit that I've been frustrated in my recent attempts to do so. Strangers keep talking to me. I find this rather charming in itself, but I would rather read my book. This last time, it was two elderly men sitting opposite us; one who was a fount of knowledge but rather cagey about his own views, and another who had lived into his eighties despite regularly drinking eight pints and nine whiskies, and despite having suffered two heart attacks. He was keen to let us know he disbelieved in all religions, especially after I mentioned I was a conservative Catholic.

On Christmas Eve, myself and my wife observed the Italian-American tradition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Regular readers will know how much I relish traditions, and can imagine how eagerly I embraced this one. We had Christmas FM on most of the time, playing seasonal standards. I think it will be weeks before "Feliz Navidad" stops running through my head.

We watched a lot of Christmas movies, as well-- and had them on TV while doing Christmassy things, such as wrapping gifts and putting up decorations.  I was surprised to see that many Christmas movies (shown on the Sony Christmas channel) are explicitly, and even earnestly, Christian. For instance, Wish for Christmas (2016) shows the dire consequences when a vapid pretty girl wishes her parents' Christian faith away, and Christmas Grace (2013) is a tale of redemption concerning two toyshop owners, one of whom is a Christian. Both films were quite corny and cartoonish, but they were also touching and sincere. I think Catholics, especially European Catholics, are sometimes unduly harsh towards mainstream American Christianity. American Christians evangelize the culture in a way that seems to have no parallel elsewhere.

I got a cloth cap from Santa Claus-- what I call a Paddy-cap and my wife calls a "newsie" hat. I was very pleased with this.

At a New Year's party, I recited "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe. I was disappointed, again, that nobody really seemed to listen to the poetry itself-- they applaud the feat of recitation, but say nothing about the poem.

A few hours before, I had the most extraordinary experience. "Live and Let Die" (the James Bond film) was on the television. I was preparing to go to the New Year's Eve drinks, and basically pottering from room to room. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer excitement of life. Images were swarming in my mind-- James Bond, Carry On movies, my horror club, the Christmas crib in a cathedral I had prayed in a few days before, Walker: Texas Ranger, Christmas trees, the train journey to visit my relatives, the bar in Wynne's Hotel in Abbey Street where I'd had a hot chocolate days before.... I found myself feeling a great gusto for life, a tremendous enthusiasm for the decade about to start. Every now and again the sheer richness and privilege of life hits me with this kind of force. Who knows where the great locomotive of history is going to take us all next?


  1. We wouldn't have fully appreciated the Epiphany photo if you hadn't explained the hat.
    I need to use one this time of the year also,but for very different reasons

    1. Yes, I'd imagine it's quite different! I'm not sure I NEED a hat, but I wanted to have one as a kind of nod to tradition and Irishness and fogeydom. I know someone who is always lamenting that men don't wear hats anymore. George Orwell said that, when he was a kid, boys would throw stones at anyone who didn't wear a hat.