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The Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Kieran Conry, is right to warn against confining Christmas to the “narrow focus” of family celebrations.
It is a bold line for Bishop Conry to have taken in a pastoral letter for that most family-focused of feasts, the Holy Family, which fell this weekend. It strikes a different note to other bishops, who in their homilies for the Feast warned that families, nuclear and precious, were under threat from challenges to “traditional” marriage, Western society, and so on.
But family, Bishop Conry argues, is more than one generation of parents and their children. It includes uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. I have a small, close family, and reading his letter made me regret that – because of time constraints, work constraints, travel constraints – all I saw of most of these relatives this Christmas was extra presents under the tree.
We don’t go overboard at Christmas (one or two presents per person, max), but it took me, mum, dad and my sister two hours to get through the pile. While family I haven’t seen in months still remember where I buy my favourite shower gel, another wing addressed my sister’s card “Justine” (it’s Julia). She and I were gifted a book of the hundred best meat recipes, despite noisily shunning meat for over a decade. But who could blame them, when the most they’ve seen of us are grainy pictures dragged off Facebook onto the smartphones of younger relatives? With barely enough time to see my immediate family at Christmas, I can't imagine how bigger families, with cousins, second-cousins and in-laws, manage to pack everyone in.
And what about spending time with the family that isn’t family? It always seems strange to me, on Christmas Eve, that the household I spend the other 364 days of the year with explodes out of London in various familial directions. Most years my housemates and I try to have Christmas breakfast together, but this year we ran out of time. Illness, friends’ tiny babies and vacations prevented many of us from getting to our annual Christmas get-together with our extended group of friends. I managed to spend some time with close friends who live near my parents in Oxford, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
After Christmas, when, shattered by a long, flooded train journey, I dropped onto my sofa back in London, a Facebook message popped up on my phone. “Are you still in Oxford?” wondered a friend who lives there, who I have known since I was nine, and haven’t seen in months. “I was hoping to grab some time with you.” It took ten minutes to summon up the energy to reply and admit that I had missed one of our few chances to meet up.
There are eight days in the Octave of Christmas, as Dominican Br Toby Lees points out in his blog for The Tablet website, and more in Christmastide. That means I have a few days left to make sure I spend at least some of Christmas with the loved ones I’ve missed out. It’s not enough time – but I’m grateful to Bishop Conry, and the liturgical calendar, for reminding me that that Christmas isn’t all boiled down to just one day and the people you spend it with.