Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas magic

“I wish I had magic powers,” said Aggie just before Christmas. I was sad, because she has always assured me she does have magic powers. But she is nine, and growing out of childhood.

Hoping to catch the child in her before it disappeared, I said: “But you do have magic powers. You can play the violin at Grade 1, you can jump up and down on a trampoline.”

“They aren’t proper magic powers,” she said.

OK, I said; think of this: if a shrimp, whose ancestors had colonised a dark underground lake millions of years ago, heard of your amazing ability to detect things by use of reflected light, he would say (if shrimps could articulate such ideas) that this was an astounding, nay, miraculous power.

“But seeing’s not magic,” she protested. “Everyone can do it.”

“Not a sightless cave-dwelling shrimp,” I insisted. The subject moved on – to animals with bad eyesight.

What I wish I had said was this: “Well, probably one day you will be able to have a baby, and if you described that to someone who didn’t know anything about it, they would say that it was a magic power.”

Think of how we imagine magic to be: as Aggie has begun to do, we think of it as something beyond the ordinary. We ignore the familiar, just because it is familiar. So we lose sight of the thing we are looking for: we cannot see the wood for the trees, nor the baby for the bathwater.

Here’s the thing about God’s love. It is not external to our daily experience. It is our experience.

Children are the only people who can bear the unbearable sweetness of the story of the star and the baby. Children, who can believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast, are almost the only people who understand that for a king to be born in a stable makes perfect sense.

Children effortlessly absorb the beauty of the birth, which seamlessly blends the spiritual and the animal: surrounded by the warm bodies of oxen and asses, Mary felt safe and secure enough to deliver her baby - a straightforward labour, for, young as she was, untroubled by the dismal stories with which women beset each other round, she simply, humbly saw birthing as a bit of hard work that needed doing.

At last, she sank back on the straw, utterly happy; tired, but inwardly drenched in oxytocin – the hormone which promotes childbearing, breastfeeding and – most magical of all - the complete adoration of a newly delivered mother for her baby.

Was this not magic? The magic of love, God’s love, working its unexpected, unplanned wonders?

We - the adults - are pantomime dames in our finery and rouge, who always turn around too slowly to spot the mysterious figure darting away when the children shout “it’s behind you”. Clumsily, we fret about being somewhere on time, or having enough money, or whether things will go according to plan: and the moment for love and magic slips away.

Christmas is when we have a chance to look more carefully for the love and magic; a chance to be humbled by their unbearable beauty, and to realise they were there all the time, but we were too busy ordering turkeys to see them.

I always cry when I see children on stage. Six pm - school nativity play starts; 6.15pm - Mrs Johnson starts blubbing, is the usual routine.

Incidentally, Aggie’s primary school has, in the past, treated us sobbing parents to “The Grumpy Sheep”, “The Hopeless Camel”, “The Hoity Toity Angel” and “The Lost Wise Man”. This year we had an Elvis-impersonating Herod in white lame. He was booted off the stage by the entire cast singing “There’s only one King, and his name is Jesus, Oh Yeah”, and we discovered that if you laugh while you are crying, you really do need an extra Kleenex Pocket Pack.

You want to know when the White Witch of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia will come to power on this planet, for real? When it really will be “always winter, and never Christmas”?

It will be when humans finally give up their magic powers to her. It will be when they willingly and compliantly hand over their ill-disciplined tendency to have children at inconvenient times and in awkward situations to the tidy, forward-planned, government-regulated fertility business as ordained by scientists and government quangos.

People will do this because, like Aladdin’s foolish wife, they do not recognise the magic object in their own hands, but give it away to a cunning pedlar.

And it will make such good sense. The White Witch does not take over suddenly, in a coup d’etat. She creeps across the land, spreading frost and snow with her nice, common-sensical suggestions, until one day we will look up and realise she is at the castle gates, and turning all to stone.

At first the White Witch said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child against her will.” That sounded sensible enough. Then she said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child she may not be able to look after.” We bought that, too.

Then she said: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who has Down’s Syndrome.” Now she says: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who might develop a disease…who is the wrong sex for the balance of the family, for surely a balanced family must be a happier family?”

And eventually, she will hold sway among the rich and powerful, and only very poor children will be born in their own time, sent by God and nature. We won’t know it, until suddenly we will realise that Christmas comes no more.

Oh, the shops will still put up November tinsel, the magazines will still offer shopping advice: “Ideal gift for your best friend: a Prada handbag, £900” assuming that the spending habits of an overpaid fashion editor with a hedge fund executive boyfriend are a useful model for the rest of us.

The TV diet of violent films and public humiliation will continue to be watched by the sad and the lonely – an ever increasing number of them – unvisited, unremembered (for there will be no one to remember them) in old people’s homes.

And there will still be children: solitary little things tucked away out of view, protected from the cold by virtual entertainments, elbowed from the TV schedules, and so showered with gifts all year round that the arrival of Christmas morning hardly makes a blip on their radar.

It will look like Christmas and sound a bit like Christmas, so we will call it Christmas. But it will not be Christmas, because we – aiding and abetting the White Witch by our own greed and stupidity – will have forgotten that the unexpected and glorious arrival of a child in the most inauspicious circumstances is the heart of Christmas.

So while the White Witch is still not quite at the gate, my prayer this year to stop worrying about what cannot be planned or provided for; and to open my eyes to the love and magic; the love and magic which are there to be found within that imperfect but blessed institution (for what family can be “perfect”? What child, what parent?) of the family Christmas.


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