In the spectacular landscapes of the Dales, the eye is constantly being drawn in every direction, pulled between the far distance and the nearest objects, fascinated by exquisite details and overwhelmed by the sweeping grandeur. A covering of snow brings new clarity, revealing contours previously veiled under the dun colourings of grass and stone, so that it looks like the earth is newly born; and for a short, silent moment of amazement, all the rough edges and muddle of the world is forgotten.
The time seems ripe for such a moment. After the noise of 2017, peppered with fearful and appalling events, as well as the compassion shown by the ordinary people who responded to them, we need to catch our breath. Christmas always feels to me like a collective pause (at least once all the shopping, singing, decorating and cooking are over!) when the noise stops all too briefly and we each – consciously or unconsciously – look around to see what our world looks like today.
It can also become rather exclusive: a time when families gather, yes; but when those on their own become even more isolated. This year, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has collated evidence from a range of organisations researching the prevalence and effects of loneliness in our society. The results are worrying: people in all age groups and in many different situations experience loneliness, impacting on health, happiness and productivity and placing a burden on public services. Loneliness can be physically painful – a continual knot in the stomach – like the faint echo of a bereavement for something that was never there. For those on their own Christmas often doesn’t help.
But in the space that Christmas can at its best create, there is opportunity to reach out and include isolated people. The family ‘unit’ beloved of back-to-basics politicians really is a modern invention, on its own a fragile thing; put it in a community, make it porous and outward facing and it becomes resilient, nurturing not only itself but the community at large, and receiving nurture from that community. There are 52 weeks and 365 days in the year; having people from outside the immediate family round the table at Christmas can contribute to making that one meal the special celebration of community that Christmas has always been.
Can, but not ought. It’s also right that each of us decides how to celebrate and whether we want to be together or to enjoy this time as a pause in our everyday proceeds and simply stand and take in the view. Look closely enough and we might see something remarkable. Listen and we might just hear the faint cries of a small baby inviting us to love for love’s sake and in that invitation, lead us simply to the surest hope available to our broken and confused world.