JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHRISTMAS NOW for Oran Mor Carol Concert, 24.12.08
IT’S WELL INTO DECEMBER, before I finally make my way to the Christmas Shop; and of course, there aren’t many Christmas cards left. But the one I like best, as I pile a last-minute selection into my basket, is a simple reproduction of an Italian painting from the 17th century, Carlo Maratta’s Holy Night. It’s a slightly sentimental painting, by comparison with the great works of the earlier Renaissance; but the use of colour and light is ravishing, in this image of a young Virgin Mary, in the darkness of the stable, gazing down at her newborn child, who lies in her arms glowing with light. Around her in the darkness there are children’s faces, all rapt and absorbed in their first sight of the new baby; and they are also touched by the radiance that flows from him. He is the Light of the World, this child; but in a way that will be recognised by everyone who has ever felt the huge, transforming power of a new child at its birth, when all the magic and meaning of life itself seems – at least to the lovestruck family – to be concentrated in that one place, that one small, precious body.
And two thoughts about Christmas come to me, as I look at this calm and lovely image. The first has to do with beauty, and how hard it is to find in the garish rush and bustle of a modern Christmas. On one hand, our traditional images of this season are often full of an aching beauty. The Christian story tells us of the child in the manger, the shepherds under a night sky filled with the rushing wings of angels, the blazing star. And the secular imagery of the old north European solstice is also intensely beautiful, the image of the holly and the ivy, the gleam of midwinter sun through the dark forest, blazing log fires, and fields white with snow; the breathless peace at the dark midnight of the year, before we begin our return towards the light.
Yet now, in the run-up to Christmas, we often find ourselves surrounded by the modern world at its ugliest, by the barren glare of cut-price retail sheds, the litter-strewn car-parks, the blaring muzak, the overpriced tat, the endless lists of niggling things to do; unable to find our way back to that core of stillness, beauty and peace.
And the second thought is about the mistake we sometimes make in feeling that we can only find that transcendence and beauty through religious faith, of the kind that many people now find difficult; so that often, on adults’ faces at Christmas – in the shops, at the pantomime – I glimpse a flat, resigned look that suggests a sense of exile from those old heartlands of loveliness and hope, as if they had been put aside along with other childish things. So that our worst temptation, at Christmas now, is to treat it only as another banal practical task, something that we do “for the kids”, and that no longer has any connection with the needs and yearnings of our own souls.
But it seems to me that a lack of absolute faith should never exclude us from that world, or from the search for meaning that led people towards it. Of course, the old masters were inspired by faith. But uncertain and agnostic as most of us are, today, surely each of us still needs this pause at the dark of the year, this time when we think about darkness and light, death and rebirth, and the mystery that surrounds our brief time on earth. And also about the beauty and radiance of the everyday world, so magically captured in Maratta’s painting; a beauty which is often hidden from us by the noisy rhythm of our lives, but which, each Christmas, we can glimpse again, and begin – with or without formal faith – to reclaim as our own.