IT’S that time of year again. Even my hairdresser here in Switzerland is feeling the pressure: Weihnachtsstress, he calls it, because everyone wants a new hairdo for the party season, and he’s only just coping. Then a chum emailed me about the same thing, but she didn’t call it Christmas-stress. She reckoned we had to call it Winterval now.
No, no! This, from one of my oldest friends. We went to school together, we were each other’s bridesmaids, we were even baptised on the same day – May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Sunday. And she’s been persuaded that Christmas as a concept is old hat.
Thankfully, Neil MacGregor has explained why this is definitely not the case, but that Christmas is probably the greatest and most loved of all global festivals. I think this is because it goes right to the essence of human existence, celebrated one way or another since the dawn of civilisation. It’s the pagan wonder at that enduring light in the darkness of winter; the significance of the arrival of a first-born son, and just the whole knees-up of the ‘wassail’ when things are looking their most gloomy.
As MacGregor points out, all this goes way beyond the confines of European Christianity. So I was surprised and delighted, when tidying some bookshelves in the process of what my mother would call ‘Christmas cleaning’, to come across a narrow volume of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer which my father-in-law had sent to the children years ago. Beautifully bound and illustrated, it is called The Power of Light.
Singer, a Nobel Laureate, made an acceptance speech in 1970 for his National Book Award, listing some of the five hundred reasons why he wrote books for children, including the following:
- Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about critics.
- Children still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
- They don’t expect the author to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know it is not in his power. Only adults have such childish illusions.
The title story in his little volume tells us about two children, David and Rebecca, hiding in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, starving and freezing to death. But David went out foraging, and found treasure – a candle and some matches – which meant they could celebrate the first day of Hanukkah. In spite of all their afflictions, the loss of their families and friends, the light of that candle brought them peace and courage. They both survived, and told Singer their story many years later: ‘If it had not been for that little candle David brought to our hiding place that day, we would never have survived. That glimmer of light awakened in us a hope and strength we didn’t know we possessed.’
This, I think, is what we all strive to see when we look at the Christmas tree lights, the offered candles in the cathedral chapels, even the candles on our birthday cake: the power of light which is still perceived as a primal force for good. Forget this Winterval nonsense – cold and dark and depressing. It’s all about Christmas, the Light of the World, hope and joy and survival.