To the poet John Clare, the first star that rises after sunset acts as a celestial shepherd’s lamp; a profoundly comforting image of starlight acting as guide for our ancestors as they navigated pitch dark lanes, sailed towards the midnight blue line that divides ocean and horizon and watched over sheep in fields around our wool towns. Stars as night lights, watching over us all, is something that I desperately want to believe.
I’m an agnostic and the unknowing is as great a comfort in many ways as faith must be to the faithful. I like the idea of a great mystery and the thought that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God, including whether one exists at all. It must be hard to keep the faith at a time when devils are doing a lot of advertis-ing.
I’m not the only person who wonders if there is anyone watching over us. After all, it’s the kind of question that Christmas can throw up for people who celebrate without Christian observance, other than the knowledge that it is believed to be the day of Christ’s birth. Each year that passes sees people complaining that the religious meaning of Christmas is ebbing away under a tide of commercialism and threat from ‘multiculturalism’. These fears aren’t recent though and the debate was something that interested someone who I playfully see as the greatest philosopher who ever lived- Snoopy and his creator, Charles M Schulz.
Back in 1965, CBS nearly pulled the Charlie Brown Christmas special because they believed that people would be turned off by a scene which sees Linus recite from Luke: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Linus recites the gospel to comfort Charlie Brown who has sunk into an existential and spiritual pit of despair as he searches for the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ amid all the commercial noise. Shy little Linus walks to the center of the stage and under a spotlight, tells us ancient stories of shepherds, sheep, starlight and a baby who carried the hopes of the universe on his tiny newborn shoulders.
I have little desire to prove whether the Christmas story is ‘true’ or not because, for me, part of its magic is the fact that we cannot do this. In my case this doesn’t manifest itself as faith which has at its centre, little need to meet a burden of proof, rather it is driven by a love of words and the ways in which people throughout history have sought to explain, teach and learn via homilies, fables and stories. As far as I am concerned, the feelings that a story invokes ground it in a kind of reality which has at its heart, those emotions common to us all.
When I was little, my grandfather told me that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the animals of the stable and in the fields, went down on their knees in awe and observance of the Virgin Birth: in the case of horses, painfully because their knees aren’t built to kneel. This filled me with awe and even more so when I read a similar thing in Alison Uttley’s book, ‘A Country Child’ based upon her own Derbyshire childhood. Since then I am drawn outside no matter how cold to gaze upon the midnight Christmas stars and imagine secret goings on in stables and pastures. There’s been a lot of gazing into the heavens as Christmases come and go: I’ve seen Christmas stars half hidden by the mountains of the Dolomites and shooting stars passing over the Rio Grande where immigrants to the USA walk through its waters. There’s been stars shining over the reclaimed slag heaps of the Rhondda Valley; stars in a sky heavily striated by contrails from planes approaching Heathrow and stars over the marshes of the Suffolk coastal region. And this year, the stars will form a sidereal smudge across the midnight blue Bury skies.
Christmas and the faith that underpins the Nativity is a beautiful enigma, aside the central story of family and belonging (and weren’t Mary and Joseph searching for sanctuary for the birth of their son?). The Nativity is a story that sets an example: it espouses welcoming hearts, tolerance and peaceful acceptance. Our skies here are benign ones, free from the furious glow of weaponry fire, free from the searing arcs of aerial bombardment but I’m writing this on the day that the Government votes whether to bomb Syria or not. What kind of skies will we bequeath the vulnerable people in this troubled part of the world?