Wednesday, 24 December 2008

And is it true?


Now let’s see if I can be the first to post a bit of Christmas Betjeman this year....

I have lived in London all my life and for most of it, I have read and loved Betjeman’s poetry too, to the scorn of my friends with English degrees! His description of a city Christmas reminds me of those of my childhood. Fortnum’s windows and lights on Oxford Street are Christmas for me, not snowdrifts and bunches of holly and yew. So this, other than the Dorchester Hotel, is rather familiar and I am sure that I fall into the derogatory category of a “girl in slacks”, though I do remember that I have my Dad to thank for my taste in poetry.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

More so, in that, as for most of the Christmases in my life, I wasn’t a Christian, they really were all about the family love that Betjeman compares here with God’s love by which his son is “become a child on earth for me”. So, as Christmas, for me, was until last year, mainly about that family love and, of course, family traditions, I now feel torn. I would dearly love to be able to go to midnight mass and the mass of the day in my parish church, but it will probably be mass of the vigil and then home to my parents on the last train to decorate the cake and make stuffing and do all those things that I have helped with since I was big enough to reach the kitchen worktops. Don’t think I’m complaining –my Christmas will be a very happy one, as it always has been, but I would like to do both, which is impossible. But whatever I do, I feel as if I am neglecting someone, my family or God, and the end of the poem pricks my guilty conscience, that presents and food and celebrations shouldn’t be more important than God at Christmas.

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

But we can always find a compromise. Last year, in the end, I went to the church closest to my parents’ house on Christmas morning. And because it was raining, Dad drove me there, and then he said he may as well come in, and then he stayed for the whole service. At the end, he said “Do you know, I think I can understand now why you like going to church so much”.

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