Glynn Cardy, 12th December 2021
As an 8-month-old puppy, you are about to experience your first Christmas. You will notice things that are different from your usual routine of play, eat, play, and follow me around.
There is that big tree in the lounge that doesn’t smell like a tree. It is festooned with figurines, tinsel, and twinkling lights. At night we turn the main lights off and the twinkles glow.
To be clear this tree, called a Christmas tree, is not to be chewed. Or done things to like dogs often do to trees.
The purpose of Christmas trees is that they have no purpose, despite the efforts of some to make everything have a purpose. They are just pretty. Beautiful. And beauty, like love, doesn’t have to have a reason. It just is.
I think Christmas trees call to that part of us, that heart of us, that yearns to be transported away from our ordinary ways, away from work and worries, into an extraordinary imaginary fairyland. A place, where dreams are good even if not true, but can come true when goodness catches on.
At night we can sit there watching the tree, saying nothing, and something happens: a little seed of pleasure is watered and grows.
So, enjoy the Christmas tree Finn. And don’t eat what’s underneath.
What’s underneath is the next thing about Christmas you need to know: presents. For some, especially children who receive and adults who give, this is big. Hidden under the wrapping paper and ribbons are all sorts of nice things – like toys, books, food, and little things we never knew we needed or wanted.
Presents are kind of like signs or placards. They say, ‘I like you’, or ‘I care about you’. And they say ‘I like and care about you much more, very much more, than this little present wrapped up under the tree.’ So, if the present is a box of chocolates say, the chocolates are simply a message saying you’re cared for and liked. Not that dogs should know anything about chocolates mind you.
Most people as they get older like the other kind of presents – the one spelt with a ‘c’ and an ‘e’ at the end. The ‘presence’ that means companionship. For as we get older most of us prefer some companionable company than more stuff to stuff our lives with. In dog language – and this might sound very strange to you – as you get older its not what or how much you eat that’s important, but who you are eating with.
Such presence, company, is the next thing you need to know about Christmas. You can’t really do Christmas on your own. Christmas is for sharing. It’s a together thing. A together with family. Or a together with friends. Or a together with those who have no family or friends. It is a time for doing things for others. Mostly little things. Like a smile and a chat. Like a cup of warm solace and a slice of solidarity. Good cheer we call it.
Christmas is about believing in community. It says that no matter how poor or rich or needy you are, you belong. It says that no matter how bad or good or weird you are, you belong. It says no matter what you believe about God or Santa or politics, you belong. No one gets left behind. Christmas says there’s enough love and goodness to be shared with everyone.
But this of course depends on us. For we know people are left behind. People are discriminated against. Bad things happen. ‘Peace on earth goodwill to all’ is up to us. Up to our sharing, our caring, our actions. Believing in Christmas is a commitment to making it happen.
Some of us like to go to church at Christmas. There we are together with other people, and we sing and pray and ponder. We even go in the middle of the night when every good dog should be sound asleep. It’s hard to explain why we go to church at Christmas. In the old, old days we had to. Now we just like to. We like how the church looks with candles. We like singing the old hymns even if the lyrics are ancient. We like being each other. But most of all we just the like feeling – a feeling that it’s difficult to find words for. A holy night.
And let’s be clear, that’s not a night where humans go digging holes. Just saying.
Christmas is also a time for stories. The same story actually. Told every year. Told and re-told, with some different flourishes and adaptations, but still the same old story. A story about a baby, and a mum, and a dad, and a journey, and visitors, stars, angels, and danger. A story where class divisions seem to collapse, where owning a house doesn’t matter, and finding room for a needy family does. A story where an unmarried mother is a hero, where gifts are given by strangers of a strange religion, and songs of unrealistic hope are sung.
Not a true story in the sense that it happened like that. But a true story in the sense that it can still speak to our hearts, make us feel loved and cared for, and make us want to try to be better at loving and caring for others. Even those different from us. Even those who don’t like us. Even those who growl at us. A story that tells us we’re not a human race but a human family. A together story.
Unlike dogs, humans live on stories. Some people call them myths. They are big stories that tell us that goodness works, and works on us. Even when we can’t see it. They tell us that bad things, like violence, greed, and loss, don’t have the final word. Even when they seem to. And they tell us that even when we’re alone and wandering aimlessly, something strange like a singing angel can appear, turn our usual upside-down, and point us in a new direction. We believe these stories, even if the details are unbelievable. For these stories call us to be our best selves. They give us hope.
Singing is also a thing at Christmas. Not howling, mind you, singing.
Over the centuries some very beautiful choral music has been written especially for this time of year. As you sit in the lounge looking at the twinkling lights on the tree, and wondering what’s in the presents underneath, you might hear some of that music coming out of those large black boxes by the wall.
This music is a language all of its own. It’s as different as dog language is from human language. This music has its own kinetic pathways into our minds and bodies. It affects our mood in ways that words don’t. It makes us receptive to wonder in ways hard to explain. It lifts us and warms us. It is a way the holy gets into the night.
There’s even a Christmas song about a dog. Snoopy. Flying an aeroplane. You don’t want to take too much of Christmas literally. For that song isn’t really about a real dog in a real Sopwith Camel in a real dogfight. Instead, it’s really about the myth that there are things stronger and more powerful than war and hate. Things like respect, friendship, and honour. Things that depend on us believing in them, and then making them happen.
And lastly, there is food. The heart language of a dog. There are all sorts of Christmas food to enjoy. Rich cakes, puddings, and stollen. Nuts, sweet treats, and mince pies. Roast vegetables, salads, and sauces. Turkey, ham, and lamb. You can really get stuffed at Christmas.
As you get older you realize that the food is indeed a language. It is a language of hospitality. Of festivity. Of solidarity. A language that says although the physical pleasure of eating is good, the physical pleasure of seeing others have pleasure is even better. And somehow the smorgasbord of it all – good company, good food, good feelings – served alongside the myth that doing and being good can actually triumph over all that threatens and rails against it – is very, very good indeed.
And this Finn is Christmas.