Near where we live, a vast new cathedral dedicated to shopping is arising, its huge tower visible from the room where I sit and type. The nearby bus stop used to be called the “Duke of Cambridge.” The old “Duke” pub, which was nothing special, was nevertheless a cheery place where local residents would meet and where my father and I sometimes dropped in for a meal and a pint. It was local, and local things happened there. Now it’s a Krispy Kreme Donut place, and despite vast neon signs to that effect — as well as the detritus on the nearby pavements as people deposit half-eaten cakes and large quantities of packaging — it doesn’t feel as if it has any connection with the locality at all.
Recently my eye was caught by a news item announcing that teenagers are to be handed “morning after” abortive pills over the Christmas season as they attend clubs and parties. Meanwhile, a firing of muskets in a Christmas tree ceremony in a country town has been banned because people might be frightened by the noise.
Somehow, this seems like an icon of modern Britain — ugly, lacking roots, bland, tasteless, an artificial culture.
At Christmas, we like to feel we are in touch with things that are lasting, traditional, and inspiring. But it is getting harder to find this sentiment echoed publicly, even though it seems to be widely shared. On a radio station dedicated to classical music, advertising clips have lately featured various media figures describing what Christmas means to them. They speak in warm, media-friendly, chatty, homespun, family-values sort of tones. But the messages all say things like, “For me, it’s all about food — everyone getting together over this absolutely fabulous meal.” Harmless enough, but it’s Christmas without God, without deeper meaning. And it’s about as good as it gets, because most other Christmas sound-effects are much, much worse.
Christmas brings out the worst in political correctness. While no Muslims have yet actually made any serious complaints about the annual celebration of Christ’s birth, officialdom delights in ensuring that no Christian images or symbols should appear at this time. So a major charity bans Christmas nativity scenes from its public displays, and local authorities try to avoid using the “C word” in announcements of seasonal activities.
What to do? We probably need to be more courageous. Certainly, from the Catholic point of view, that is in our heritage. People trekked long distances to attend Mass secretly in the years when it was banned. Priests risked martyrdom — a viciously cruel martyrdom involving torture — to bring the Sacraments to the faithful. The Faith in England was retained and passed on at an incalculable price.
And there are other examples of sacrifice, too. This November, the last surviving Tommies from the Great War came to the Cenotaph in London to lay poppy wreaths on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. A great silent crowd gathered, people spilling out of offices along Whitehall or, like me, just happening to be in the area and drawn by the activity. We were welcomed by a formal clergy voice over a microphone, and a band played, and we said the Lord’s Prayer (at least, some of us did — it’s noticeable that in a crowd now, most younger people don’t seem to know the words, or, at least, are too embarrassed to say them). Then the Last Post, and a silence so acute that you could hear only the rustle of leaves in the wind, and young people in uniform wheeling forward these old, old men who sat erect and bore the blood-red poppy wreaths on their laps. One tried to rise to pay his respects as the wreath was laid.
We are not the same nation that sacrificed so much in war twice in the last century, and we know it. I am glad and grateful that no such ghastly slaughter as that of the Somme has touched my generation or the one that has come after it. War is horrible and vicious, and its avoidance is something for thankfulness.
But in the still-remembered past there was a recognition that there were large and deep things in life, things beyond food and sex and accepting current attitudes and going with whatever is most comfortable. And in honoring the war dead, we have our sole annual possibility of thinking about the larger things.
And we need more than this: We need Christmas and Easter, an honoring of the heritage of a common Christian faith, a sense of belonging to something that has meaning and value, a recognition of duties that bind us to past achievements and current obligations. We need faith, generosity, courtesy, kindliness, respect for our past. and a real — not a clichéd — belief that we can do good and worthwhile things as a community and civilization tomorrow.
It is slightly scary that, as I feel more and more detached from the Britain and the London where I live and work and earn money, my ability to write and express this sense of alienation grows apace. Is it a bit like those Russian dissidents we all used to admire so much, whose sardonic, witty, poignant essays spoke of a sort of “internal emigration.”
But writing has its own value, as those dissidents found. And they had real courage — they faced imprisonment, the KGB, the Gulag. The message for me is to stop whinging, keep the Faith, and do good things. There are people in the world who are genuinely suffering and whose problems I can, in a modest way, help to alleviate, if only via a charitable donation. There are useful things to do for others in my own locality and through the groups and organizations of which I am a part; there are spiritual and moral obligations; there are things to write and create and share; there is Advent and Christmas.
Spe Salvi: There is hope.