Monday, 24 December 2012

Hopeful times

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, Alexander Pope told us. The Romans put it even more succinctly: dum spiro spero, while I breathe, I hope. It’s no accident that was was left in the chest Pandora opened, to console us for all the evils she’d released, was hope.

Like all human qualities, even hope isn’t completely impervious to the worst other humans can throw at it. One of the grimmest images I have of the extermination camps of the last world war is that they were places were spirits were so broken that hope was at last driven out. The worst of afflictions, as Dante knew: he put those most chilling words to go above the gates of Hell: ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here.’

Generally, though, hope keeps up going, making us believe there’s something to strive for, to plan for or at the very least to wait for. That deserves celebration, and when better than now? The nights are long, the days are cold and grey, the trees stand leafless, the flowers without blooms, but we know that, all things being equal, life is going to get better again. Quite soon.

So we choose this moment to make merry, to encourage each other to hang on a little longer as better times are just round the corner. That’s something we’ve done for millennia at this time of year: long before anyone had thought of Christmas, it was the Saturnalia or the birth of Mithras or Chanukah or some other winter festival near the solstice.

As it happens, it works perfectly well for Christianity to adopt it. Belief in a redeemer to save us all from our own sins is a doctrine of hope. It makes sense that the great festival of hope has become the key point in the Christian calendar, when it should have been Easter, the feast of the resurrection. It’s just worth remembering that the hope was there long before the Christianity.

That means it doesn’t matter whether I wish you a happy Christmas or a happy Saturnalia or, indeed, a completely secular happy Solstice time. Whatever festival we celebrate at this time of year, let’s all enjoy the fact that things are as bleak and miserable as they get and from now on they’ll be improving again. So – lots of season’s hope to you all.

Happy Saturnalia and a hopeful New Year

Of course, none of this applies in the Southern Hemisphere where everything’s back to front. All I can say to my Australian friends is don’t eat too much turkey in all that heat, make sure you’ve got the sun block on, and enjoy the summer. We’re looking forward to getting back to one of our own in the very near future.

Or, at least, that’s what we’re hoping for, here in England. Summer’s been the season of disappointment for years now. But who knows, next year might be different. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Hope springs eternal, you see.

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