So much STUFF


I am sitting beside the tinsel tree, amongst paper ripped off presents. I feel the weight of the annual seasonal obligation to show my affection for loved ones by giving and receiving STUFF.

On Christmas Eve, I watched Nativity Play 2 with my kids, a story in which a poor school enters ‘A Song for Christmas’ competition. There are a lot of catchy songs, including one that goes something like, ‘this Christmas I don’t care about Peace on Earth; All I want is stuff.’

That song didn’t win, of course. I thought the film might just be another story of underdog wins music competition, but there was a plot twist. The posh school give up their chance to be on stage so that the down-on-their-luck school can perform their winning song, and in turn that school lets the posh school pick up the money prize. So maybe Christmas isn’t just about stuff, although it’s hard to keep sight of that in all the pressure of giving and receiving.

A time when there was less stuff

This Christmas, I am thinking back to a time when my life wasn’t so weighed down with things. In the BC (Before Children) era of our lives, my husband and I tried to walk lightly on the planet, leaving as small a footprint as possible. We cycled and recycled. When our contemporaries were scrambling onto the first rung of the housing ladder, we were more interested in travelling from place to place clocking up experiences.

During my first pregnancy, I took the Scottish superstition that you shouldn’t buy much before the child is born to an extreme. When our baby arrived, we had acquired a small basket for her to sleep in, one blanket, one towel, five sleeping suits (neutral colour), five vests, a changing mat and one pack of newborn-sized nappies.

In those first few days in hospital, I realised that we might need a few more things. The first outing with the newborn in a baby snuggly, was a walk into town to pick up a nappy bucket and other practical items, including the pram which we finally ordered two days before the birth.

Christmas adds to all the stuff

Quite a few years and several children later, we have acquired a house, a car and a lot more stuff. Sometimes Christmas seems like an exercise in weighing ourselves down with even more items. I have tried to mitigate it by buying useful things (socks) or educational things (books and learning games) as well as the toys and gadgets which they simply want. This year I even bought them a Cafod world gift. They scarcely looked at the card telling them that fruit trees had been given to a family on the other side of the world before ripping open the next present.

This year we have encountered the additional hazard of social media where kids post pictures of themselves with the latest electronic gadget or arty photos of the perfect Christmas scene. It’s an uphill battle telling my children that happiness isn’t to be found in things or images.

Happiness without much stuff

I look back many years and see myself walking along a street in a tatty pair of jeans and hideous trainers with bright pink soles. I didn’t have any money to buy new clothes because I was volunteering for a charity, living in very simple circumstances, and paid only a few pounds a week. However, as I walked along that street, I realised the lightness and liberation of not having much.  

I can’t give my children this kind of experience. Cancelling Santa at this stage in their lives would simply cause anguish. However, I hope and pray that even in this culture where there is a tremendous pressure to acquire and to be seen to have things, my children will learn that peace and happiness does not come through STUFF.


Purple is for Advent


I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter, but it was a not entirely pleasant surprise to find out that Advent is also a time of self examination and penance when Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

The reformed church in which I grew up did not recognise Christmas as a religious festival. Some people did not celebrate Christmas at all, and others kept it as a purely commercial festival for the sake of the kids. Christmas for me was a time of quietly counting Christmas trees glimpsed through open curtains, delving into stockings, unwrapping presents from gaudy paper and over-indulging in food. Although I knew the story of Christ’s birth, I was more likely to hear it in July than at Christmas time.

The idea that the time leading up to Christmas is one of self-restraint as Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, came as a bit of a shock. I find it hard to reconcile what is going on inside and outside the church at this time of year.

Outside, shops are full of tinsel and bright Christmas displays. I brave packed department stores and queues at checkouts and leave with heavy bags and an empty feeling that I have somehow missed the point. Harried mothers exchange notes on how much shopping there is still left to do. I feel the burden of Christmas as an annual commercial ritual, which becomes more costly every year.

Inside, the church is quiet, waiting, the only decoration is the four candles in the Advent wreath. Extra time has been set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The readings from the prophets talk about God’s mercy, a people being redeemed and returning from exile, streams flowing in the desert dryness. The cry of John the Baptist from the wilderness echoes down the years.

The priest wears purple, just as in Lent. I always thought that purple was a royal colour, a sign of wealth, more suited to celebration than penance. I wondered, why purple was used, and in the liturgical year book for England and Wales for 2013-2014, I found this beautiful explanation. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, a new liturgical year begins at the start of Advent.

The Year begins in darkness a deep purple darkness where we long for light and the bright shimmer of a star is a sign of hope and life. In the Liturgical Year, purple or violet is a colour of longing, renewal and expectation: in Advent and Lent, at funerals or in the Sacrament of Penance, purple should speak to us of that which we long and yearn for: like a deer longs for running streams, so we yearn for the living God to come to us, to heal us, to be with us. Our purple is a sign of all we long for: the presence of Christ, the washing clean of all sin, the resurrection of the dead.

Purple is also a sign of kingship and majesty the One who comes, the One who heals, the One who raises the dead is himself the King who reigns from the cross….The Church and the liturgy should be waiting not quite there yet, just around the corner….Advent is the unfilled glass polished and made ready speaking in its emptiness of what is to fill it.


Images of Mary

If you had asked me about Catholicism when I was growing up, I would probably have told you lots of things which I have since discovered aren’t true. Top of my list of misinformation would have been that Catholics ‘worship Mary’. There was an elderly man in our church who took every opportunity (and I really mean every opportunity) to accost Catholics and demand why they worshipped Mary.

Devotion to Mary is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Protestants who are attracted to Catholicism. I still found this aspect of Catholic teaching challenging, even though I had been married into a Catholic family for many years before I even thought about becoming Catholic.

When I met my husband, I was far too much in love with him to worry about religious questions. After meeting his family, who included several nuns and priests, I realised that although they had a special respect for Mary, it was clearly Christ who was at the centre of things.

For years, I thought of it as a cultural thing. Every Christmas we went through a bit of a pantomine at home. My husband bought Christmas cards with reproductions of classical paintings of the nativity. The Virgin and child were, of course, in the centre of the picture. Even if they hadn’t had the address of a Catholic charity on the back, I wouldn’t have sent these cards to my relatives, because they were just, well, a bit too Catholic looking.

My church was so reformed that Christmas and Easter, the two biggest Christian festivals, were not celebrated, which was not to say that the Christian teaching behind them was not spoken about. Our minister might happen to preach a sermon on Christ’s birth in July, whilst we were taught about Christ’s death on the cross in practically every sermon. However, if you were to visit our church on a Sunday towards the end of December, the sermon would almost certainly not include any mention of the birth of a child in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

When we were young, my parents didn’t want us to feel left out, and so we celebrated Christmas as a commercial festival. In keeping with this, I sent my Protestant relatives garish pictures of snowmen and Santa Claus, while my husband sent his Catholic relatives classic nativity scenes of the virgin and child. It was something which we teased each other about. However, it now seems symbolic. Mary brought Christ into the Catholic Christmas, whilst the focus of my ultra-reformed Protestant Christmas was getting new toys and eating too much food.

When I was coming close to making a commitment to become Catholic, I felt that other aspects of Catholic teaching such as saints and transubstantiation and marriage as a sacrament, had clicked into place. However, I still didn’t feel that I really understood at a heart rather than head level the role of Mary in the church. I asked Father K if it was all right if I said I was prepared to trust the church on their teaching on Mary in the hope that I would eventually understand it better. He said that this would be fine, and after that, there really were not any major reasons why I couldn’t become Catholic

Going back to where I started with the Christmas cards, in all the traditional paintings of the nativity, Mary is pictured with Christ. God could have found some other way to parachute his Son into the world, but he chose to do it through a woman. Through praying the Rosary and meditating on the Gospel mysteries, I’ve thought more about Mary’s role. It hasn’t brought me closer to feeling any strong devotion to her, but it has brought me further in my devotion to Christ.