John Arnold: It may be the bleak midwinter but Christmas lights up lives

Ahead of December 25, John Arnold reflects on the year past and looks forward to 2020 
John Arnold: It may be the bleak midwinter but Christmas lights up lives

A TIME OF PLENTY, IF ONLY FOR A FEW DAYS: Christmas week at the Coal Quay in Cork city in 1933.

IN the words of John Lennon: “So this is Christmas, and what have you done, another year over, and a new one just begun.”

Ah yes, it’s Christmas time again and I love it.

I really do relish this time of year and it’s not just for the feasting or the holidays or the cards and presents. They are all great and so much part of this special season, but it’s much more than that.

Saturday is Midwinter’s Day, the day ’tis said that night and day are equal, and dark and light compete for top spot. The ancient feasts of midsummer and midwinter are truly that — ancient.

Centuries, even millennia, before Christianity or any religion was even contemplated, people needed to mark the passage of time and differentiate between the seasons.

All over the rural countryside of Ireland we have standing stones and stone circles, and of course magnificent monuments like Newgrange. The study of all these is continuing and there are many theories in regards their origins. One thing we can be certain of is that our Celtic ancestors were very aware of time and space, the sun, moon and stars. They probably had their Gods — of nature, rivers, mountains and winds.

We loosely use the word pagans in a slightly derogatory manner, as if to say those we label are lesser beings than those of a recognised ‘faith’. The opposite is probably the truth, because these people lived off the land by the sweat of their brow. Eking out a living was their only purpose in life.

From such simple beginnings grew huge gatherings — we tend to call them festivals, where people came together. The one we are about to celebrate next week was of mixed emotions. Midwinter was the darkest of the dark. Gathering growing food was finished, though hunting was still ongoing.

The prudent who had gathered and garnered food stores to tide them through were safe until the spring brought new growth. It was a time to reflect on the days and seasons just passed, to meet the elders and the new arrivals.

I presume at these gatherings ‘matches’ were made, cures were passed on, family lore recalled. It was the ‘slow’ season of the year when keeping fed and warm were the priorities.

It was little wonder then that after Jesus Christ had died, his followers would want to mark a date to celebrate his birth. I think most Bible scholars will agree that the date of December 25 was ‘settled upon’ as his birthday for several reasons. There was an old saying that ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em’ so rather than try to extinguish old, ancient festivals like Midwinter, it was easier to adapt them to be Christian landmark dates.

So Christmas came into being and at a dark, dreary, cold time there was nothing better to raise the spirits than a good birthday party.

It was only in the year 567 that the Council of Tours came up with the 12 days of Christmas — from Nativity to Epiphany. Rather than suppress olden ‘pagan’ customs, rituals and practises, it was easier to convert them to Christianity and a mighty job was done in that regard.

Every year, I hear many people giving out about the commercialisation of Christmas and how it ‘begins’ earlier each year. There’s some truth in those complaints, but then isn’t it great to have a reason to celebrate for nearly a fortnight?

There’s no other feast, festival or holiday, in Ireland anyhow, that goes on for so long and I’m all in favour of it! I say ‘Bah, humbug’ to those who belittle the Christmas season.

I know, I know, people eat and drink too much, but so much love and happiness and goodness also abound at this special time of year.

Of course we should look after our needy the whole year round, but in fairness Christmas highlights problems like homelessness and poverty. Even if it’s a guilty conscience being pricked, that causes deeds of kindness to be performed and largesse displayed, well, that’s just great.

The story of the birth of Christ, his family in a strange place and the ‘no room here, move on’ aspects all have a resonance in the Ireland of today. We were always known as ‘Ireland of The Welcomes’, ’twould be a pity if that description of our country disappeared forever.

Yes, it’s a time of reflection on the year ebbing away and anticipation too for 2020. For me, this past year saw several joyous events including the birth of two more grandchildren. Of course, as new generations arrive and grow up, we are aware of the passing years.

In 2018, I was part of a small group of people with Twomey ancestry who met several times to nourish, prune and grow our family tree. During the last 12 months so many things meant our progress was halted as regards research. Hopefully in these coming weeks we’ll kick-start the project again.

We have so much to be thankful to our ancestors for, so the more we record their story, the better.

Twice in the last 12 months I’ve been to Lourdes. In the helter skelter heat of June, the place was throbbing as we went on Pilgrimage. In November I returned, more reflective and thoughtful after losing some great Lourdes friends. I know for their families this season will bring back such memories, yet the absence will be felt so much.

The hip I got half replaced a decade and a half ago is giving me a bit of trouble and the recurring chest infections and bouts of asthma are reminders that truly our health is our wealth. Overall, though, I have little enough to complain about.

From a farming point of view, this past year was better than the drought of 2018. I love the variety of farming life and of course the animals and I am really excited about our Farming With Nature ‘Bride Project’ being undertaken by 44 farmers along the Bride Valley.

To the loyal readers of this column, a sincere ‘Thank you’ and my wish for you all is that this Christmas season will be one of peace, happiness, fun and friendship.

Over the last dozen or so years, I’ve made so many friends through my writing. Little did I think back in the year 2008 that I’d still be using the second finger of my left hand to tap out stories 12 years later!

People contact me to say something I penned awoke a memory or thought from down the years. People love company and I love talking and reminiscing.

People often ask me, do I prefer talking or writing — hard to say really but I love writing about things I’ve heard from others!

So, for this last scribbling for the year of Our Lord, two thousand and nineteen, may I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

It’s For Everyone

“Christmas is only for children” people can sourly say

With lights and tinsel and streaming decorations.

Toys, crackers, fun and games, parcelled presents.

But weren’t we all children once upon a time?

Christmas is for everyone, big and small, young and old.

Birthdays are not forgotten when we pass twelve

So why say “We got over Christmas”

As if it was to be endured not enjoyed?

These coming twelve days should be a time to think

To recollect, to remember, to think of others

Not always ourselves. It’s a time for everyone.

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