Leafing through the Radio Times, there’s a cornucopia of eye-catching spreads featuring assorted celebs talking about what they want for, or think about, Christmas. They’re all donning Santa costumes of one flavour or another – that perennial neutral safe lowest common denominator crowd pleaser theme.
Bright red and white, attractive, adaptable – from staple old man with huge beard to sexy lady in skimpy costume – it’s become the defining motif, flagship image of the western British consumer Christmas. The familiar modern costume has acquired remorseless consumer pulling power; just as with the nativity, the profound resonance of an ancient story gets lost in a vortex of commercialism.
I don’t deny this stuff is fun to look at – it’s part of the modern ‘hearth’, like Downton Abbey drawing us to its cosy warmth. It’s also fleeting and superficial – the Santa imagery will soon be forgotten for another year. This is where the original Christmas narrative potentially steals a march – the message of ‘God with us’ is supposed to be NOT just for Christmas. When the sparkly flotsam of tinsel and Santa is blown away by the chill wind of January’s return to work blues and tax return deadlines, the profound possibility of an abiding Presence dwelling in and sustaining us will remain.
I've been having a look at my dad's heavy hardback tome of Bill Bryson’s illustrated ‘A short history of nearly everything’. The BBC’s ‘Wonders of the solar system’ then ‘of the universe’ a year or two back, radio 4’s ‘Infinite monkey cage’… Bryson embodies the same popular passion for the sense of voyage, adventure and general mind expansion that science offers. And of course for many science is the new religion, its experts the new priests and nature the great universal church – a primary locus of worship and wonder. It’s true, we CAN all applaud this adventure. But then when you hear the selfsame adventurers dismiss religion by contrast as mind-shrinking dogma and folklore, you realise religion has a bit of a PR battle to fight.
Actually, we inhabit several mental and imaginative landscapes that don’t always appear easy to reconcile. There’s science & technology, and also for instance the manufactured polish of the retail world, high street glitz. And then on Christmas morning, at the local C of E, we sang ancient carols about ‘stable bare’, choirs of angels, Jesus appearing now as a baby, one day seated at the right hand of God most high… carols which still hold our affection, but whose images spring from an old and seemingly outdated vision of the world.How do we begin to reconcile these ‘parallel universes’?