Being effaced

A Christmas song is played in school each morning. There is a dull predictability about their pop music banality. The sequence of songs is to culminate with Mariah Carey. If that is the best Christmas song that can be imagined, then something has been lost.

We were not religious. We never went to church. My father, born in 1936, was never baptised, something unusual in those times.

The village church was a landmark, a beautiful part of the scenery, a place to be approached on those few occasions when the ecclesiastical and the everyday touched upon each other. There would be the festival of tea towels and dressing gowns each Christmas and the placing of flowers on a wooden crown each Ascension Day. Children did not attend funerals, our family baptisms were always elsewhere, and no-one from our family was married in the village.

We weren’t “unchurched.” We knew the vicar, we encountered the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible in school, we even knew the name of the bishop. We knew the names of the services and what happened at each of them, for the vicar came to our school each Friday morning. We knew what it was all about and what it was about had nothing to do with us.

Yet there was one moment in the year, one night, when transcendence seemed possible. There was a mood, an ambience, a sense of wonder captured in the words of the old English carol God rest ye merry, gentlemen.

The final verse of the version we sang expressed the sense that this was a time like no other:

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth efface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

It seems from online investigation, that we may not have been singing the original words, but we would not have worried. As far as we were concerned, Christmastide did indeed blur into insignificance other church festivals.

The sentiments did not arise from any religious conviction, and in days in parochial ministry I would come to love Easter much more. Instead, there was a feeling that these words expressed the mood of our community, of our shire at Christmas. The carol was one for singing raucously, it was one that might be sung by men with raised tankards, a song for the pub as well as the church.

Compared to such an evocation of the indefinable, Mariah Carey is earthly, plodding and dull. If hers is the best of Christmas songs, then the transcendent has been effaced.

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