Family & Friends at Christmas
Posted: Tue, 15 Dec 2020 11:26
As we approach a very different Christmas, Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB thinks about those who are closest to us, although we may not be able to be with them.
The family - that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to.
Dodie Smith, 'Dear Octopus', 1943
It is said that Dodie Smith was moved to write her popular children's novel 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' when a friend commented, on seeing Dodie's own pet Dalmatians that "they would make fantastic fur coats!" You may have seen the 1961 Disney cartoon based on her book. The central human characters, Roger and Anita, meet while walking their dogs and, after they marry, their dogs have a litter of fifteen puppies. Into this happy family comes the evil villain of the piece, the delightfully named Cruella de Vil, who kidnaps the pups along with various others, with the intention of making herself a fur coat.
As you would expect, Smith offers her readers a happy ending. All the animals are rescued and, through the winter snow, make their way back to London where Roger and Anita are attempting to celebrate Christmas and his first big hit, a song about Cruella. They deeply miss their pets, but they hear barking outside and the house is filled with dogs after their maid opens the door to realise their pets have returned home with 84 extra puppies for a total of 101 pets. They decide to keep all the puppies and use the money from Roger's song to buy a larger house in the country so they can all live happy ever after.
As we approach the great feast of Christmas, I suspect that we will be spending some of our holiday time watching feel-good Christmas movies to get us into mood. There are even TV stations dedicated solely to showing Christmas family movies all day long. Whatever the rules and regulations that you are living under due to COVID-19 protocols, I pray that you can spend some quality time with your family and friends. Even though this Christmas will have to be different, we still crave and need that social time with those we love; with Smith, you want to have those octopus-like tentacles wrapped around you—at least in a figurative way! Due to the way that this pandemic is spread, close physical contact can literally be the touch of death. Thus, our natural inclinations to hug and share a Christmas kiss have to be ignored this year as we see our responsibility to keep the vulnerable safe.
If those hugs have to be 'virtual' this year, it does not mean that connection has to be diminished. The irony of 2020 is our realisation that we have never been so connected, in the midst of essential social isolation. I watched the ever popular 'Late, Late Toy Show' on RTE, the Irish public service broadcaster; I was amazed to see a young Dublin girl sing 'Rule the World' from the Dublin studio. As she sang, she was joined by global choir of children, singing live from locations at diverse as Times Square, New York, the Sydney Opera House Plaza and Mandela Square in Johannesburg. Children from across the world were united through the gift of music, song and the power of global communications, joined by one of writers, Gary Barlow himself. Many people in my own family see this TV event as the start of our family Christmas. Take a look:
Christmas is the family holiday par excellence; in our Northern hemisphere, we celebrate with food, lights, gifts and family-time in the midst of winter. The gloom and cold give way to warmth and light. While many people choose to ignore the religious elements of the feast, they gleefully enjoy the secular feasting, as they tuck into their Yule log and mince pies. That first Christmas was the epitome of simplicity, as that little family unit of Mary, Joseph and their infant, Jesus, shared their gift of light and new life with the poor and vulnerable. Hospitality was offered to the shepherds, even in the poverty of a Bethlehem stable—this was true hospitality, as the shepherds had no real home to welcome the Holy Family back into.
This year we may well have to cut back on the extravagance and excess of previous Christmases, if we've been fortunate enough for that in other years. Perhaps this year we can concentrate on the essentials, as we gather only with those in our designated bubble. We will have probably missed out on our works' party, family gatherings, carol services, nativity plays, pantomimes and Advent Reconciliation. We have avoided the crowded shops as, more than likely, we are cooking for much smaller groups this year. However, as we gather in our groups, I invite you to take time to reflect on those who have been there for you in these times. In crisis, you soon realise who they are and the sacrifices they have made for you—they are the 'keepers' and the special ones.
I hope that despite the tragic events and restrictions of this past year, you have been able to spend some quality time with your family, making banana bread and doing the Joe Wicks' workout together (less of a possibility for key workers and people working from home, of course). It has been wonderful to see how this pandemic has actually brought people together. However, for some families, this close proximity only brought problems, abuse and hurt. As a Church, we have to be aware of the trauma that so many members of our community have been through. Our parishes and schools can offer a great ministry of healing and support to families over these next few months and years. We have had to find new ways of reaching out, especially being able to utilise the full potential of social media. In this Christmas time, we need to see beyond the cosy and sometimes, crass, presentation of the 'Hallmark ideal Christmas.' We realise that our family and friends are not perfect: we might have that uncle who drinks too much; the teenager who slams the door too hard, as they have yet another row about curfew time; the youngest sibling who we feel is spoilt rotten! However, for better or worse, they are family.
Christmas is that wonderful time when you see just how important your family is; you may also realise that special friends are just like family, and so can be 'adopted' into your own family circle. Thank God for those friends who are there for you and who you probably might not be able to meet up with this Christmas. As we enter 2021 with hope and the promise of a vaccine; we can look forward to a year that will make a difference, especially in our well being and mental health. John O'Donohue speaks of the importance of friendship in our lives; in Celtic spirituality, the 'anam cara' is the true soul mate who understands you and walks with you in the good times and, more importantly, is with you in the bad. We can share compassion, understanding and care as he reflects:
One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.
John O'Donohue, 'Anam Cara'
One of the greatest gifts you can offer this Christmas is the gift of really listening to loved ones—either in person or online. What about even writing a letter or card just to tell them how much they mean to you? I dare you to try it! Never fear the silence because these are special times; in the silence you can find deep meaning and perhaps even find your voice to say what you really mean, as we can be so polite at times! The Irish have a lovely saying, 'a stranger is the friend you have yet to meet!' As we approach Christmas we are conscious of the gifts that our friends and families bring us—gifts that cannot be neatly wrapped up or sent via Amazon.
When we lose loved ones, especially to tragedy, we feel our very life is ripped from us—we lose part of ourselves with them. In coming to the end of this pandemic year, we are invited to look back on this year and remember those we have lost, especially to COVID. To remember those key workers in the NHS, Social Services, care homes and domestic care, shops, public transport, postal and delivery work, schools, voluntary agencies and parishes—those who have made a difference and entered our lives just when we needed them. Once again O'Donohue reflects:
Your beloved and your friends were once strangers. Somehow at a particular time, they came from the distance toward your life. Their arrival seemed so accidental and contingent. Now your life is unimaginable without them. Similarly, your identity and vision are composed of a certain constellation of ideas and feelings that surfaced from the depths of the distance within you. To lose these now would be to lose yourself.
In the simplicity and gentleness of Christmas 2020, I wish you well. Appreciate those who given up so much to protect you and to give you the Christmas you deserve. Thank God for family and friends who have become family. As the poet, André Mauroi reminds us, these are the ones who give us true warmth in a world that can be harsh and cold. Be that warmth to those you love today:
Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold.
Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB