The popular concept of Christmas is largely a construct of the advertising industry. It is significant that this trade draws so strongly upon nostalgia and 'tradition'. The ideal Christmas image owes much to the Victorian era in general and to Charles Dickens in particular.
Huge log fires; the extended family around a table creaking with wholesome food; picturesque snow around mullioned windows which look over serene landscapes or elegant streets – these are odd images for an age of central heating, convenience food, nuclear families and high density modern housing.
There is much which is displeasing about this mix of manipulation and opportunism: carols as an adjunct to the selling of beds and inflated price tags attached to any commodity which can be tricked out in gold, scarlet and ribbons can become very lowering quite quickly. But the thrust of the appeal only works because there is a string within us which vibrates to the bass tone of our deep desires which the admen and marketeers are so adept at exploiting.
Along with sentimental representations of the birth - far from home - of a child from an oppressed and occupied land, these images are designed to create nostalgia and an inchoate longing - perhaps for something which we hardly knew, a 'blue remembered hills' of the soul.
This is where an understanding of myth and its function as a bridge to our futures is helpful. We use the word carelessly, generally employing it as a synonym for untruth or delusion. But that is exactly what it is not. Myths are stories told about truth and it is wisdom to attend to the meaning of those stories – a meaning which does not alter but which needs re-visiting in every generation if we are to live it with integrity.
All the seasonal myths speak to our need for love, security, hope and peace. If we misinterpret these needs, they sidetrack us down glittery, consumerist paths of sentimentality and inevitable disappointment.. And entry to those dead end paths depends upon the looking backwards which advertisers work hard to instil in us as a refuge from present discontents .
But delusion does not change its nature because it is candle-lit. There is a strong pull towards re-creating the memories of childhood Christmases, of seeking to revisit a time when we may have felt safer and less troubled. It is a pull which must be resisted.
Though the mythic teaching of the past is our foundation and nourishment, we must not stand still if we are to understand, and be agents of, the transforming power of light in darkness. We have a present to live and a future to make.
The Quaker writer and activist Damaris Parker-Rhodes encourages us towards the responsibility of questioning and re-interpreting the myth for our own time: “I personally believe that there is a quality in the bareness of Christian Quakerism, which may act as a bridge between the past and the future, allowing space for Friends to dare to search within...I remain on that bridge, part of my roots reaching back into the Christian past and part stretching forward to the future where new symbols are being born.”
It is good to enjoy the carol services, nativity plays, mince pies and mulled wine. But let us not ever mistake them for anything more than a nudge towards the truth.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger