I’m in the Barn of Bannocks, and it’s a dirty old Tuesday night, almost midway through this pre-Christmas week. It’s 8.9 degrees Celsius in here, which is well below legal limits for a working environment. Still, back in the manse they’re furiously preparing for tomorrow’s distaff staff Christmas lunch, not to mention wrapping presents for the Day of Days on Saturday.
And I love Christmas. I have loved it with a passion ever since I was old enough to leave a glass of ginger wine (nothing alcoholic in our house) and a mince pie out for Santa, plus of course a carrot for Rudolph. I can still recall the hot, electrical smell of Lewis’s toy department in the week before Christmas, part of an annual shopping pilgrimage around Glasgow that fuelled the excitement up to fever pitch; the smell of new-cut Christmas tree, and the eternal parental battle with malfunctioning lights. Lights which seem, through the mists of nostalgia, to have been so much bigger and more interesting than the ones you get now, all fibre optics and irritating tunes
Putting the list of presents up the chimney; queuing in a frenzy of excitement to see Santa in either Lewis’s or Wylie Lochhead’s - an experience which I don’t remember ever confusing with the idea that Santa was really, well, real. It was like theatre, great theatre, or perhaps a splendid pantomime:
I certainly, as my wife claims to have done, never thought that Santa was God, or vice versa. Admittedly, this was drummed into me by my Brethren upbringing, which was, contrary to many bitter bits of reminiscence, almost all good, apart from actually having to sit through gospel services and morning meetings. Santa was Santa, a mysterious force for eating mince pies and drinking ginger wine, and delivering presents in the mysterious darkness of sleep prior to Christmas morning. Santa was a performance. Santa was home. Santa was, in the end of the day, mum and dad.
You can see the Santa/God differentiation problem: both, after all, have beards, are male and elderly. Or were when I was growing up. But leaving the historical St Nicholas out of the equation for the moment, the Santa I knew and loved was almost entirely pagan, a provider of material things, of toys, books, annuals, sweeties and later, the essentials of life such as bikes and record players. Though by then, the phrase “see what Santa brings you” had become a mere sop to my younger sisters and the notion of parental providence.
Speaking of paganism, I write on the shortest day of the year, in the howling, rainy darkness. The barn roof has just sprung a leak. A small one, admittedly, but worrying. Tomorrow I’ll have to climb up and check for lost slates. It’s the equinox, a day when the year turns, when some of Shetland and Orkney’s ancient burial sites spring to a weird kind of life, if the sunset is visible, fading away along the sites of precisely-aligned entrances, arches and standing stones.
I heard someone on the radio today saying that Christmas was nothing but the pagan festival of birth/death/light/dark moved to accommodate Christ. And I like the idea of Santa as a kind of big, bearded, pagan provider of light and laughter. But as I sit in this barn, built on the site of an ancient monastic chapel, itself probably erected on an even older, pre-Christian site of worship, I’m thinking of the other stories I grew up with.
I’m thinking of an unmarried mother giving birth in a cattle shed. Not a converted, heated barn like this one, but a dirty old byre, thick with animal smells and sounds. I’m thinking not of the big, primeval notions of light and dark, of cosmic fear and bad weather, winter and spring, but of the utter defencelessness of a child, hunted down by an evil tribal leader, born illegitimate of a refugee mother. Without a place to rest his head.
Maybe it is all the same thing. The light coming into the world, the child in the manger being a symbol of the coming spring, his inevitable death the autumnal ending of things, followed by rebirth. If that suits you, then fine. But it’s the humanity of Christmas that haunts me. The idea of big beardy God, creator of heaven and earth, bloody and squirming in a manger. The millions of similar, desperate births that will occur across the world this Christmas.
Just for a minute or two, anyway. Then Santa takes over, the wine flows, and we rest secure amid the roast tatties and joyous, pagan consumption: all’s well with the world. Except somewhere, there’s a baby crying. There always was. There always will be.
(reprinted courtesy of the Shetland Times. Check out www.shetlandtoday.co.uk)