And in despair I bowed my head,
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead: nor doth he sleep.
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.’
‘Christmas Bells’ - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping in Manchester earlier this evening.
After I left Waterstones, I turned off Deansgate and headed up St Ann’s Square and there I briefly stopped, as I suppose I must do at some point each year, to look at the small plaster nativity, housed in a glowing wooden box across the street from the annual markets.
Ordinarily, I would stop to contemplate this scene for perhaps 30 seconds before joining the city centre bustle and finding my way home to start my wrapping. Today however, I found myself dwelling a little longer, staring at those familiar figures, each set carefully into position on a handful of straw, as they are in town centres all over the UK.
The story these painted, chipped pieces tell is such a foundation of our culture, is embedded so deeply in our storytelling, that it’s also one which is easy for us to pass by without thinking too deeply.
Gloomy stable, mother and child, ass and ox, three wise men. For most people this imagery is ubiquity itself, something which has inhabited our Christmases since we can remember: sure, I’ve seen it in paintings by Bruegel and Caravaggio, heard it described in hymns and carols and prayers and read it in poems, but it’s also there in the school plays, the cards, the decorations, the Christmas packaging.
Now, however, standing there in St Anne' Square, things seemed different. I peered through the glass, assessing each figure present at this birth: the battered shepherds, the wise men, Joseph, the animals. Outside of this tableau, in the darkness which lies beyond, King Herod's Massacre of the Innocents is underway, with soldiers roaming from door to door looking for male infants to slaughter. The nativity is ineluctably a story of refugees.
The ox and the ass - they've always intrigued me. Almost universal in modern depictions of the nativity, their presence receives no mention in Matthew or Luke, the two gospels which relate the story of Jesus's birth. There have been similarly non-canonical details – the infant's glowing skin, Mary's midwives, the circumcision, the messiah’s first bath – which were once popular aspects of the retelling of the nativity but they have long drifted out of fashion.
Indeed, in all the iterations of the nativity that span the ages, the only two constants have been virgin and saviour, mother and son. The rest of the cast is expendable.
I've often thought about how Christmas – both the gaudy holiday and its perilous founding story – is foremost a celebration of childhood. But here, standing in a quiet corner of a cold and busy street, I thought of it as a celebration more specifically of infanthood, of babies.
Perhaps gazing into this biblical frieze, trying to tease from it some new meaning despite being an unbeliever wasn’t an entirely surprising response. Its rather spooky mixture of the ordinary and the miraculous is something I’d been assailed by only a few months earlier: this is my first Christmas as a father. The items I was bringing home were Christmas presents for my baby daughter: pyjamas, a dressing gown, some toys.
Eventually, I made my way home and during the night, when I was unable to sleep, I read on my phone, as I often do, about the daily tally of drownings which have taken place in the Mediterranean following families and individuals trying to cross over to Europe (18 today, six of which were children).
I then looked up the few poems inspired by the nativity with which I’m most familiar: John Donne’s ‘Nativity’, John Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ's Nativity’, Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. I love each of these poems but tonight they felt wrong, attempting at imbue the scene with a bombast which somehow seems to miss the point.
I drifted into old secular seasonal favourites: ‘Christmas at Sea’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘Winter Nocturne’ by Philip Larkin, another atheist drawn to such things. ‘What survives of us is love’, Larkin concludes elsewhere, a line in ‘An Arundel Tomb’ that I’ve always liked but also found difficult to agree with. What survives of us is very little at all: artefacts, buildings, systems. But love? As such a kernel of the lived experience, of the purely inner world, how could it outlast those within whom it dwells? No, I don't think so, sadly. It's simply not possible.
Next, I found myself Googling images of the nativity, until I settled on the one I was looking for, Sassoferranto’s Madonna and Child which consists of just the two principle figures, pudgy baby at rest and mother drowsy.
We do not survive. We die and are remembered for a time and then are forgotten, each of us, eroded by the steady pull of time.
And yet this year I’ve become keenly aware how fragile we are as a species, how entirely dependent babies are on our better instincts for their simple survival. It has become clear to me that the workaday handing down of love through the generations, tenderly passed from one lifespan to the next, is indeed the sum force of what binds human life to the toil of existence. Despite existence itself often causing us confusion and pain and always - without exception - ending with tragedy.
I remain a nonbeliever. But I also cannot look at the nativity without sensing a real presence, something grander than our individual lives. There's a reason why it is our favourite story, the narrative we have placed at the heart of of our shared public lives.
Looking again at Sassoferranto’s painting I can see how the image a woman caring for her newborn – mother and child forming a hidden flicker of warmth in a landscape of darkness and hostility – makes for a more compelling basis for a philosophy than anything else found our planet.