It’s been a struggle, but we’re finally getting there. The Christmas gifts to family and friends have been ordered and dispatched. Decorations and last-minute supplies are being anxiously awaited, as ears prick up to every motorcycle that passes, to every buzz on the intercom. But a goose has been sourced and is now safely in the fridge together with other rare finds such as oysters and foie gras. The wine has been delivered, racked up and ready for the final selection. All that remains are a few esoteric extras – tabasco, limes, pomegranates, shallots – to be picked up on the way home, and then we are done. Christmas in Athens, in the middle of the lockdown, can finally begin in earnest. It’s going to be 17 degrees on Friday, and we are thinking of having lunch al fresco on the balcony. In the absence of travel and feasting with family and friends, we are using some the money we would have spent on a different, and we hope memorable, Christmas alone.
This Christmas is indeed strange, a Christmas against the grain, a Christmas of self-isolation, self-forced, inflicting the pains of not being with the ones we love for our own, and their own good.
Christmas – and the pagan ceremonies that came before it – was always a festival of light cheering us up in the gloom of winter. Anyone from the north – I mean that area in Europe above a line drawn from Bordeaux in the west across to Budapest and then down the Danube to the Black Sea – knows the long nights, and the low sun in the sky, and cold. Christmas is, after all associated with snow, and evergreen trees, with red berries, dusted with frost. And light: candles, candelabras, sparkling Christmas lights, LEDs, shop window displays, roaring fires, in fact anything to disperse the seasonal gloom, as the winter solstice draws near, and the cold gathers in earnest.
This year it has seemed especially necessary to dispel the gloom: the first lights went up on the last Sunday of November in our house. People seem to be trying to prolong the festive season as much as possible, starting it as early as possible and I expect keeping it going for as long as they can. The second wave of the pandemic has lost a lot of the charm and novelty of the first, as the shackles of restriction grind away at our liberty, and slowly our lives become smaller. Christmas is an excuse to vary the tempo and the scenery.
The Twelve Days of Christmas – what will my true love send to me? – start on Christmas Eve and barrel on through to the Epiphany, ticking off New Year in the middle. Christmastide, to use a traditional term, wraps up a lot of different themes together: new life, light, fertility, darkness, hibernation, keeping evil away, regeneration, feasting, hedonism, rededication and wrapped up with tradition.
One of the nice things about tradition is that you can adopt it/make it up/discard it as appropriate. Many traditions will have to be adapted this year, but many others will probably be adjusted as people think “why did we ever do/eat/drink this stuff year after year without question?” I expect it will be the same for me too, but I have some personal traditions that still mean a lot to me, and I suspect I will be adhering to them nonetheless, with feasting (see above), music and some bits of literature and film/TV.
At some point I hope to read, again, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It is a short book but has bequeathed to us so much: the ghosts of the past, present and future, Tiny Tim, and of course, Ebenezer Scrooge. In Greece Scrooge – or Σκρουτζ – is the top online shopping site, and doing very well this Christmas too. But if you have time, try and read the original – it’s online. It even mentions shipping:
…the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.
I will probably spend at least some part of the festive season watching It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s masterpiece starring James Stewart. If you haven’t seen it, you should, and if you have I hope you will agree with me that we all need to consider what the world would be like if we had never been born, and then make our New Year Resolutions accordingly.
And then James Joyce’s short story The Dead, from Dubliners. The setting is a dinner party given on Twelfth Night (Epiphany) by two elderly sisters in Dublin, but centres around the main character Gabriel Conroy, a teacher and part-time book reviewer, and his thoughts and reflections of those close to him. If you don’t want to read, then look out for the film starring Angelica Huston. Her father, the legendary John Huston, directed it and it was to be his last film. It’s beautiful. I read it story every once in a while because apart from being a masterpiece of writing, it gives off a feeling of melancholy and emotion that is of its time: the end of the Christmas period, and just before the start of the First World War. It also describes with feeling the loss of the living, even when we did not know them:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
This has been a tough year, for the living and the dead. Let us put to one side for now the effects of the lockdown on the economy, on shipping, and on our routines. Let us even put to one side the idiosyncrasies of the restrictions as they change from country to country as the pandemic develops and mutates. It’s hard because it surrounds us all. But if, like me, you have lost a loved one to the virus or, like me again, have had the anxiety of loved ones going through the illness, even when they come out the other side unscathed, then you know, like me, that life is a very precious and, yes, beautiful thing. But I would ask you to think a little further on from your nearest and dearest if you can, and spare a thought for those who are or who have been ill, for those that have died, or have known those that have died, and for those who cannot go be where they want to be for Christmas.
The pandemic has disrupted so many lives, but especially those who make a living at sea. These essential workers have been treated horrendously by port and state authorities around the world, even as they make sure the world keeps working. In case you are in any doubt, think of the things that ships have brought to you this year, in the midst of the worst pandemic of 100 years. I started to make a list, but it was getting too long to include here. But almost everything in the shops, and online, and the fuel to drive the trucks and the cars, and the electricity you can get from the sockets (depending where you are), food, drink, medical supplies, and yes, even those lovely Christmas decorations and lights that you have hung up in your homes to make you feel better, the vast majority of all these have been brought by ships.
Ships need to be crewed by real people, and these real people have real lives too, they are not just bodies that work at sea. They have families, and they have friends, and a home, a place they go to when they are not at sea. Out of sight, out of mind perhaps, but without their eyes and minds, ships cannot sail, and goods cannot be delivered. They go to sea to earn money for their families, so they can live. They are not saints or sinners, or heroes, or villains, but just normal people – encompassing the whole range of humanity – working in very difficult and risky conditions, physically, mentally, psychologically, and emotionally. There is no need to overdramatise, but they have suffered a great deal of stress going to and from work recently. If they can’t go to work they don’t get paid. When they do get into work, they don’t know when they will get home. Shipowners and ship managers in the vast majority have done wonders at great effort and expense to make sure ships keep running safely, and their crew can do their jobs, and get home. There is nothing that one person can do, but this Christmas try and spare them a thought, at least.
It is strange to think of us human beings self-isolating at any time because we are by nature social animals. We cannot survive without our families, without our networks, without society. We are hardwired to feel the pain of social exclusion as keenly as physical pain: both are processed by the same part of the brain. To exclude ourselves is against our better nature. It hurts, and it sucks. But we do so because we need to protect ourselves and our societies against a worse evil: ill health, and death.
This Christmas I wish you, your families, your networks, your colleagues, your friends, your παρέα the best of: health, safety, security, contentment, appetite, joy, peace, belonging, happiness and love. If you have any surplus of any of the above, don’t throw it away, but share it with those that have a deficit. Of all the messages of Christmas, the one that resonates with me is that light brings hope, whether it’s a star, a tree, or your phone lighting up with a message, or with an invitation to join a conversation. If you know of, or suspect someone that needs a little more light in this darkness, be the bearer of that light to them. This gift costs nothing, but proves that there is, after all, an upside to being an intelligent, social animal.