I have many good memories, and I have so many of these from Newcastle. One of the strongest is that of Christmas, it’s high point for me being the annual Christmas Tree and Toy Service. How sweet the memory. At the end of the service, the choir would follow me out, leaving the congregation singing Silent Night while seated, with the lights down, except for the one over the huge Christmas Tree, with all its fairy lights and the mountain of colourful gifts for poor children gathered round its foot. The choir and I would stand outside the door, looking in, sharing the beauty of the moment.
Forgive my reminiscing. But Christmas is a time for reminiscence. From the earliest age, the sense of nostalgia at Christmas grows. Atheists, agnostics, Christians and non-Christians take part in it, in spite of the efforts of some people defiantly to say “Happy Holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas”. The festival has a deep meaning for most people, with the old words, the old songs and carols, the gifts and good food; associations that move the heart: candlelight, the hope of snow, listening for the sound of sleigh bells as you go to sleep; the make-believe – such symbolism, such poetry! All the goodness, all the hope that we pray for during the year are reflected here, with the light of candles in children’s eyes, as it was in our eyes, long – or not so long – ago.
I don’t make New Year resolutions now. I used to, but not now; I’ve had too many failures. Many people do indeed have success when making resolutions on the first of January. To begin something good and new, you need to have a clean sheet to begin with, and what can be cleaner and more obvious than the first day of the New Year?
But that implies that any other date in the year won’t be as significant as the first of January, and that may mean that you will have to wait a whole year before the next really significant date. This isn’t so. What we need when making any promise to ourselves, or to anyone – or to God – is a good reason for making such a promise. A good reason lends power and commitment to what we intend to do, whenever we start to do it. For several years, I tried to give up cigarettes on the first of January, with a forward look of vague intent, hoping for self improvement and a bonus of more money in my pocket, and never getting beyond a few weeks. There came the flop back into the old ways and disappointment at my failure, which I eventually forgot until another New Year, with a further repeat and inevitable flop.
Then my father developed emphysema because of a lifetime of cigarette smoking and the doctor told him to stop or he would die. Dad always did as the doctor ordered, so he stopped smoking, but was finding it terribly hard, and I said, “If you stop, I’ll stop, too.” So we both stopped, each having the same important reason to give up. For my part, I knew that if I flopped this time, my father would die.
I started to dream about going to a tobacconist (the same dream shop as always), buying a packet of cigarettes, smoking one and throwing the rest away. The dreams lasted for years, but I never flopped. The day I stopped wasn’t New Year’s Day: it was the 26th September, 1966, and I haven’t had a cigarette once in all that time – and Dad lived for another twelve years.
Just as we can carry the message of Christmas throughout the year, so also may we carry the essence of improvement and renewal through the year, because newness can start on any day, bringing a spring in the step, a forward burst of energy, love of life, love of people and renewed hope – not just for this part of life, but also for what lies beyond. Yes, it’s there, believe me.