Musing on the meaning of it all

Second Reading

GLIMMER OF GOODNESS Light in the darkness of winter, hope in the face of struggle.

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

It seems to me that ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ dominates Christmas television in recent years. I grew up in more-innocent times. In the 1960s and ’70s the humorous stories of Eamon Kelly, the Kerry seanchaí, were a staple yuletide favourite on television and radio.
One of his stories was of the Kerry farmer who travelled by pony and trap to Cahirsiveen on Christmas Eve.  Having completed his shopping he adjourned to the pub. As he did not want his relatives in the town to know he was there, he perched himself in the snug, the small room that publicans provide for those who want to drink privately.
Having drank not wisely but too well, he set off for home, stopping off at the impressive Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church for Confession.
There was a big crowd awaiting absolution. By the time it was his turn to enter the confession box he felt drowsy. In the box he fell asleep as the priest detained the person on the other side of the grill for a long time. Startled by the eventual pulling back of the curtain, confused by where he was, he blurted out, “The same again, and turn the lights on in the snug.”
Most people under 30 may need a glossary to comprehend this story. The numbers of people attending Christmas Confession has dwindled to a trickle and the architecture of modern pubs does not include a snug.
My favourite time of Christmas is late on Christmas Eve to Christmas morning, when the last frenetic flurry of shopping is over and calm descends. The everyday landscape seems touched by the transcendent. It is as if the natural and spiritual worlds are in harmony. Awe is in the air.  
John Montague’s poem ‘Christmas Morning’ captures something of this sense:

Lights outline a hill
As silently the people,
Like shepherd and angel
On that first morning,
March from Altcloghfin,
Beltany, Rarogan,
Under rimed hawthorn,
Gothic evergreen,
Grouped in the warmth
cloud of their breath,
Along cattle paths
Crusted with ice,
Tarred roads to this
Grey country chapel
Where a gas-lamp hisses
To light the crib
Under the cross-beam’s
Damp flaked message:

Even nonbelievers can be affected by the atmosphere. Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, in his beautiful poem ‘The Oxen’, found himself contemplating the Nativity on Christmas Eve, ‘hoping it might be so’.
The great poets of World War I have ensured its horror will never be forgotten. The battle fields of France and Belgium were ‘acres of pain’.
In the darkness there was a glimmer of light. Paul McCartney wrote and recorded the song ‘The Pipes of Peace’ about the unofficial ceasefire between the Allied and German troops at Christmas 1914. A letter dated December 25th, discovered some years ago, tells of how on Christmas Eve, the germans began placing ‘lights all along the trenches and calling over to us and wishing us a happy Christmas’.
There followed an exchange of buttons and balaclavas, haunting renditions of ‘Silent Night’ in German and English, and a football match between men who had been trained to kill each other.
Carol Ann Duffy’s fine poem ‘The Christmas Truce’, written for Armistice Day, celebrates that interlude when friendship trumped hate:    

All night, along the Western Front, they sang,
the enemies –
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems,
in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.

So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist,
to open itself
and offer the day like a gift
for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz …
with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.

Frohe Weinachten, Tommy! Merry Christmas, Fritz!
A young Berliner,
brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

Then it was up and over, every man,
to shake the hand
of a foe as a friend,
or slap his back like a brother would;
exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,

Tickler’s jam … for cognac, sausages, cigars,
beer, sauerkraut;
or chase six hares, who jumped
from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball
and make of a battleground a football pitch.

And all that marvellous, festive day and night,
they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file,
their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves …

… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.

Happy Christmas to all readers of The Mayo News.

John Montague’s poem ‘Christmas Morning’ is from ‘The Bread God’, part III of ‘The Rough Field’, in ‘New Collected Poems’, The Gallery Press. ‘The Christmas Truce’, by Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by David Roberts, is published by Picador.