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Thursday 27 July 2017

In a season of contradictions, all you really need is... money

WITH THE GREATS: Brendan Kennelly at the Paddy Kavanagh statue on the Grand Canal in 2004. Photo: Martin Nolan
WITH THE GREATS: Brendan Kennelly at the Paddy Kavanagh statue on the Grand Canal in 2004. Photo: Martin Nolan

Brendan Kennelly

Christmas is a season of contradictions. The very idea of Christmas has something contradictory about it. Christmas is about birth and the celebration of birth; yet it comes to us when the year is dying. It's as though we were being told that birth and death go hand in hand. And we learn this, as we learn many things that deeply affect our lives, through the experience of contradiction.

But there are several contradictions at work before and during that moment of birth-death.

What is Christmas anyway? Is it the celebration of one of the world's most significant spiritual events? Or is it an orgy of commercialism, a cynical exploitation of the dreams of the children and the end-of-year fatigue of adults? Are we involved in commemorating a miracle or developing a business like venture?

I know that for many people Christmas is a spiritual event. The God-child is born again in their hearts. The Creator declares His innocence in the face of casual human corruption. For those who really believe, Christmas is an annual affirmation of God's intention to renew and redeem sluggish, self obsessed, money obsessed, success obsessed humanity. It's a statement of God's actual interest in man. To show this interest God becomes human, a child, the epitome of naked vulnerability, the most helpless human in the world, without memories, without anticipation, without the power to protect himself or others. Yet this is the Saviour of grown men and women. If one is to believe in Christmas, this is part of what one must believe. It is a moment that is both lucid and mystical; it is a marvel and a mystery; it is the core of one of the greatest religions the world has known. Its reality is difficult to define. Its consequences are immeasurable.

And, in our society, this marvel, this mystery, would barely be possible without money. Because Christmas is money. For the past few weeks, I've listened to the talk that we all know that we all speak ourselves.

"Christmas will break me."

"Christmas is for the children - but it's bloody expensive."

Christmas is an orgy, a genuine, unqualified money orgy. And, boy, do the business people know how to go to town on this desire of ordinary decent folk to get rid of every penny they have, and many pennies they haven't! The formula is simple enough: screw the adults by exploiting the children's desires and dreams.

It's all perfectly legal and above board. Like all good business. Like most civilised cynicism. Above all, it is what we all want. Do we not work hard to make it possible?

And it is glamorous. It is beautiful and colourful and endlessly absorbing. Listen to that saccharine voice telling the kids they can win prizes. Consider that magical arrangement of coloured lights. Look at the genius that went into the creation of that shop-window.

And that same shop-window will have little hands and noses pressed against it, in wonder, in glowing admiration, in warm, innocent hope. All Santa needs is money. "All daddy and mammy need is money." And more money.

Because little Jesus is born in our hearts today. And he was naked in the manger. And Mary wrapped him swaddling-clothes and placed him in the hay. And the poor little boy - God had no money at all. God at birth had no money. And Joseph couldn't even get a jar at the inn. No room for a wandering carpenter with a pregnant woman in tow. We don't want that shabby-looking chap around the place. Maybe he didn't have enough money. No cash, no gargle. Get out of here, Joseph.

There are two Gods in Christmas: the God of the Christ-mystery, and the God of money. Which God is the more powerful?

Sometimes, I feel there is a ferocious hypocrisy. Sometimes, I think we should just have an orgy and cut out all the reference to Christ. Leave the child alone and get on with the boozing.

But this child is there somewhere. And he drives people to the orgy. He rouses them to some degree of awareness. And the only way they can show it is through money.

But money has nothing to do with the mystery. Yet the mystery is that almost nothing would be possible without money.

And now dear brothers in Christ, let us all bow down before the money-God. Shops are altars, the punt becomes the incense. Joseph, have another gin and tonic. How are you fixed for turkey, Mary? Would you see if the child is all right? Pity he isn't big enough to have a drop. Maybe next year.

I would suggest, looking at the society we have created and live in, that the most obviously prominent God of Christmas is the money-God. Nothing particularly wrong with that. But we should admit it. And yet, the old cliche may be right in the end. Christmas is for the children. There's something weirdly accurate about that cliche. Tired, boozy, bloated adults we have always with us. But Christmas is for the children, too young yet to have become devotees of the money-God.

Somehow or other, their innocence makes it all bearable. Just about. But the horrible thought sometimes strikes me that a child's innocence is nearly an adult's undeveloped cynicism. The irony is savage and permanent. Let us be cosy, at any cost.

Christmas should be a moment of consciousness, a celebration of spiritual revolution. We have elected instead to turn it into a moment of oblivion, an exercise in calculated compassion, a warm gush of sentimentality, an isolated, freakish moment of apparent good will (and some genuine good will). It's the genuine bit that matters.

Genuine. When all is said and done, when all is eaten and drunk, when the money-God rolls over on his back and snores his way to a new currency, a new rate of interest, there is something utterly genuine and inexpressively sweet about Christmas.

It's as if the true spirit of Christmas has survived all our concentrated efforts to cheapen and vulgarise it. One small light outstrips the world's darkness. There is a Christmas spirit that refuses to be dimmed or distorted or destroyed. It thrives in defiance of the money-God.

So, in spite of everything, I have said about puzzling contradictions, I would like to end by wishing all my forgiving friends and my unforgiving enemies the sort of Christmas which, in their hearts, they would wish for themselves. Above all, enjoy it. And think about it.

First published Christmas 1984

Sunday Independent

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