It’s becoming one of the most standard cliches – “Christmas isn’t a Christian feast any more, just an excuse for spending money”. And alas that is certainly true across modern Britain, where the advertising and shop window promotions were in place by late October, and people, especially children, are encouraged to believe that there are some “must haves” that are indispensable to human happiness. The latest expensive toys, the latest “must have” shoes or boots or jacket, the latest food-fad for the jaded taste-buds of a populace with a substantial greed/obesity problem…all these are promoted and shout at us from TV advertisments and shop windows and the internet…
How to give light and hope, and offer the real message of this glorious and sacred festival?
St Patrick’s church in the heart of London’s Soho district will be running its Advent Mission at the start of December. This centres on the church being open with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and involves street evangelisation, carol singing, and a great procession through Soho bringing together Catholics from the many different national groups that live and work and worship in this area.
Carol-singing from door to door is not as easy as it once was in London. Many blocks of flats now have “entryphone” systems where it is necessary to key in a number in order to gain access to the block – so it is no longer possible for a group of singers simply to go along the walkways and sing at people’s front doors as in the recent past. In some parts of London, the population consists largely of people from cultures where carol-singing is not known, and so if a group of singers does go from door to door, they often meet only mild bafflement. Even organising a group requires some overcoming of worries: “Are we allowed to sing carols in the streets – even if they have words that are all about Christ and so on?” some one asked me the other day.
Of course we can sing Christmas carols! No permission is needed, no licence required – this is still a country where you are allowed to sing a time-honoured hymn about Christ and his mother, shepherds and angels, in a street at Christmas-time. But it is significant that people are worried about it, even if they admit, on being reassurred, that they “sort of” knew that actually carol-singing is in no way banned.
There is a sense in which people feel that Christianity is now formally and even officially marginalised – one student who went carol-singing with a group from her college last year informed me that they had been instructed not to sing “religious carols” but only songs about “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” and “Santa got stuck up the chimney”. I asked how on earth this had worked, since few people know the words of these, while “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” are familiar to most. “Mmmm….it was a bit messy” she said “It just didn’t go well, until some of us simply insisted that we sing things that people knew.” Who had given them that original instruction, and on what authority?
The traditional British ideas about common sense and human freedoms need to be reasserted – along with a good dose of British humour. Christmas is a great time and needs to be celebrated with faith and joy.
One way of singing carols has proved increasingly popular in recent years, and that is to do it for the great crowds of commuters at a mainline railway station. When the LOGS (Ladies Ordinariate Group) sang at London Bridge station last year, it was an enormous success – the teeming crowds of commuters, the fabulous accoustics of the great station concourse, the sense of good cheer on a winter’s evening, all combined to make a terrific atmosphere, and we were almost overwhelmed by how splendid it all was.
To sing at a station, permission is required, in order that no two groups try to do it on the same evening, and to ensure that money raised goes to an authentic charity. And because singing at stations is becoming more and more popular, you have to book early, and even then you may find that some of the best dates have already been allocated. We’ll be singing on Friday, December 5th – so if you are in London on that day, come to London Bridge station and enjoy us!
Singing carols, doing some street-evangelisation, posting out leaflets with the times of Christmas services and confession, organising some processions, having some outdoor crib scenes, holding children’s Nativity plays…all this can help to foster true goodwill at Christmas. But for too many people in modern Britain, Christmas will still have a sour taste: divorce and cohabitation and family break-up means despair and loneliness and tension for many people, children have been taught that this is a time for demanding expensive gifts and for being indulged, much food will be thrown away as people buy more than they need, and there will be that mournful sense of “Why isn’t this enjoyable?” that is inevitable when consumerism trumps real goodwill.
Christmas 2014: the call for a New Evangelisation has never felt more urgent.