On Christmas Eve we went to midnight mass. Throughout the day the house had been full of family: daughter one with her Alex and the granddaughter, the son (who had left The Jolly Thought riding at anchor near Rochester, just outside territorial waters, under the temporary command of a pirate ethicist), daughter two, and daughter three, with her Alex. Daughter three, her Alex and their Bentley are staying for a few days.
I bonded with the granddaughter. We went upstairs together to my study and she walked unerringly to a jar with change in.
“Money,” she said, taking a handful of it.
“My money,” I explained, and she put it back.
She is very advanced.
We ate Uzbekistani pilaff, which the better half cooked, and honey cake and then chocolate, which the son brought, and mince pies, made by daughters one and three but, this being Christmas, not the subject of invidious comparison, and we drank wine and then the family left and the better half went off with her friend R to drink more wine, with the result that when midnight arrived the last thing anyone felt like was church, and certainly not the dispiriting preliminary business of singing carols in a big draughty building with the organ playing at half speed and pausing altogether when the organist comes across a hard bit.
Before the mass started we met a nice priest called Father Milo. The better half insisted that Milo was not a real name, but he said that it was and that he was a real priest. He proved this by indicating his collar. To change the subject (and also because in a fit of enthusiasm I had said that I was the Archbishop of Canterbury, but in disguise) I told him that in the City there was a priest called Sue who was charged, appropriately, with the spiritual care of lawyers.
“All women in the Church of England are called Sue,” he said.
Later he preached, quite well, so he must have been a real priest.
The service as it progressed had different effects on the better half and me. She kept up a monologue about the stupidity of religion punctuated by requests to identify the place that we had got to in the service sheet. She hated the incense and coughed delicately behind her hand. Admittedly there was a lot of it; we have one of the most muscular thurifers in London. She enjoyed the sign of peace though and kissed a surprised Chinese couple and our vet. When it was time for carols, she contributed a sort of howl, atonal but full of verve. The dog, banned from church on the grounds of health and safety, would have approved.
I was overcome by nostalgia for Christmases long past, something to which the better half, who encountered the Anglican Christmas for the first time only ten years ago, is immune. I love the idea of heaven descending to earth, the old golden land with its angels, all in white standing around, divided from us by a mere membrane and visible through it. I love In the Bleak Midwinter, Christina Rossetti’s imagining of Palestine in rural England: snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow. I love all the bits and pieces, the three priests in their sacerdotal best bobbing up and down in unison, the muscular thurifer, the clank of the old bit of silverware, donated, no doubt, a hundred years ago by a pious parishioner, as the chief priest drizzles the Bambino, as High Anglicans call the baby Jesus in his crib, with holy water.
What does that have to do with Dawkins and Hitchens and their plodding demolition of the idea that Genesis Chapter One might be a literal account of the creation of the world? Absolutely nothing, of course. Only a scientist, and an unimaginative one at that, would think that a belief on God had anything to do with logic, let alone scientific theory. Hitchens, a writer, should have known better. Someone once said, as if it were a criticism, that Evelyn Waugh was seduced into the Roman Catholic Church by its language. Why ever not? And if not the language of the liturgy, why not the music of Tomas Luis de Victoria (which would have left Waugh cold) or the creak of the Bambino-drizzling silverware, according to taste?
The better half’s resistance to the magic of it all, on the basis that it is not, after all, magic, is a better riposte than the new atheists’ arguments from logic. And there is also the much deeper question of whether it all actually helps…
On Christmas Day we opened our presents. Daughter one had given the better half gold, frankincense and myrrh. The frankincense, freed from the industrial scale imposed by the muscular thurifer, gently suffused the room and the gold (leaf on truffles) went down a treat. The myrrh, of course, awaits us all