‘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 recently. Leaving Waterstones, turning off Deansgate and heading up St Ann’s Square I briefly stopped, as I suppose I must do each year, to look at the small plaster nativity, housed in a glowing wooden box across the street from the annual markets. Rather than rushing home to wrap my purchases, I found myself simply standing there, staring at those familiar chipped figures, set carefully into their positions on a handful of straw, as they are in town centres all over the UK.
Now, however, things were different. I peered through the glass, assessing each figure present at this birth: the battered shepherds, the wise men, Joseph, the animals… The ox and the ass in particular I've always found intriguing. Although now almost universal in depictions of the nativity, their presence receive no mention in Matthew or Luke, the two gospels which relate the story of Jesus's birth. The scene’s other once popular non-canonical aspects – the infant's glowing skin, Mary's midwives, the circumcision, the messiah’s first bath – have long drifted out of fashion and now seem to us recherché and a little puzzling.
In all the iterations of the nativity that there have been throughout the ages, the only two constant characters have been virgin and saviour, mother and son. It struck me that Christmas – both the gaudy holiday and its perilous founding story – is first and foremost a celebration of childhood. Or, more specifically, of infanthood. Indeed, it wasn’t entirely surprising after all, I reflected, that I found myself stood here, an outright unbeliever gazing into this biblical frieze, trying to tease from it some new meaning. 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 dad. Here I was, taking home Christmas presents for my daughter: pyjamas, a dressing gown, some toys.
I made my way home and during the night, unable to sleep, I read on my phone, as I often do, about the daily tally of drownings which had taken place in the Mediterranean (18 today, six of which were children), the same news report recycled across a handful of websites. Then, in an attempt to festively gee myself up, I looked up the few poems inspired by the nativity with which I’m relatively familiar: John Donne’s ‘Nativity’, John Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ's Nativity’, Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. On the whole, they don’t really work for me, aiming for either lyrical yet fairly dull description, or attempts at imbuing the scene with a regal bombast, something which rather misses 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, in the past, found difficult to agree with. What survives of us is very little at all: artefacts, buildings, systems. But love? As such a kernal of the lived experience, of the purely inner world, how could it outlast those it inhabits? No, I don't think so, sadly.
I found myself Googling images of the nativity, until I settled on one, Sassoferranto’s Madonna and Child. We do not survive. We die and are forgotten, lost to the unbroken and inexorable falling away of time. And yet this year I’ve become keener than I’d thought possible to how fragile we are as a species, how entirely dependent babies are on our better instincts. Gradually, it has become clear to me that the workaday handing down of love through the generations, from one lifespan to the next, is the sum force of what binds human life to the toil of existence, something which feels meaningful in a way I find difficult to explain and powerful to the degree that, at times, it's a little frightening.
I remain a nonbeliever, but I can fully see how the image a woman caring for her newborn – mother and child forming a hidden flicker of human warmth in a landscape of darkness and hostility – would make a compelling basis for a philosophy.