I was at secondary school during the industrial disputes of the early 1970s, which culminated in the infamous “three-day week”. It was an era punctuated by frequent power cuts and for me the initial excitement and novelty of being plunged sporadically into total darkness soon wore off.
I vividly recall struggling to undertake the most routine of tasks by candlelight, without heating, hot food, and (worst of all) television.
My peers and I swiftly discovered that we could not even use the blackouts as an excuse for failing to produce our homework on time. I tried that only once, as my attempt was met with the most withering of responses from my maths teacher, who simply replied: “Get a torch.”
I certainly learned to recognise the value of basic commodities that I had previously taken for granted when suddenly I had to cope without them.
My parents’ stoical response to the situation did little to ease my own frustration and exasperation. They remained unmoved by my complaining, telling me not to make such a fuss.
Of course theirs was the wartime generation. My father spent his 21st birthday in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. They knew what it meant to live with real deprivation, fear and uncertainty. And they had fared better than many during the war years. For my parents, the temporary inconvenience of being without power at certain times of the day was no more than that — a temporary inconvenience.
A crisis of any kind can reveal much about the character and priorities of individuals and society, so it is interesting to reflect on this in relation to the pandemic that has dominated our lives for the best part of two years.
We have had to navigate a sea of uncertainty, responding to continually changing rules and guidelines, while discovering that assurances about the future issued by those in authority can be retracted just as quickly as they were granted.
The experience has brought out the best and the worst in people: we witnessed an astonishing, if shortlived, expression of national unity and goodwill, when thousands across the country turned out to applaud hard-pressed NHS staff, but the panic buying that emptied the shelves of our supermarkets in the early days of lockdown told a rather different story.
The pandemic has generated remarkable examples of human creativity and generosity of heart, while at the same time exposing shameful inequalities in society. It brought a marked increase in incidents of domestic abuse and severe psychological illness.
Many people are in financial distress, having fallen through the cracks of government support schemes or turning to charities or food banks to sustain themselves. As inflation spirals — another trigger for memories of the 1970s — the strains on family finances are only likely to worsen.
Within this complex picture, Christmas seems to have acquired renewed significance. It is often said that it has degenerated into little more than an excuse for rampant secular consumerism. The pandemic experience suggests otherwise. Leaving aside for a moment those who work in retail, what seems to have been at stake for most people in December 2020 was the restoring of human relationships rather than shopping. After months when they were starved of human contact, there was a real yearning for a chance to celebrate together once again — and we seem to be witnessing this again in 2021.
Strange though it may seem, it was anxiety about the financial plight of our church musicians that probably caused me the most sleepless nights during lockdown. We have a wonderful professional choir at St Bride’s, many of whom are also married to freelance singers. Because they are self-employed, several of our choir members saw their household income for the coming year evaporate overnight.
Remarkably, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of some of our congregation members, we were able to continue paying them for all the Sunday services that they missed during the first lockdown. It helped to keep them afloat, not just financially but psychologically, and gave me confidence that somehow we would all find a way of getting through. I remain both astounded and moved by such acts of compassion and kindness.
Though we live in a complex, secular, multicultural and multifaith society, Christmas seems to retain a remarkable capacity to inspire unity and goodwill. I always treasure the Christmas cards I receive from Jewish friends and Muslim neighbours, even though they are not marking the event themselves.
Even before Covid changed our lives so radically, it was already being observed that numbers attending Christmas services in many places were increasing, despite the general decline in church congregation numbers. One wonders why this might be. Is it just possible there is something about the Christmas story and the traditions associated with it that draws people in?
If you take the time to explore them, the themes associated with Christmas are powerful and compelling, and have never been more relevant than they are today, for those of us who are weary of life in Covid-land. Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, is certainly not for the fainthearted. It is a time when we explore darkness: the darkness of a world in desperate need of healing and hope and the spiritual darkness within the human heart.
As I discovered when living through the power cuts of my teenage years, there are many different ways of responding to darkness — but the one thing that it really teaches you is the value of light. And when, at Christmas, we finally encounter the reality of that promised light, it comes to us in the most unexpected and subversive of forms, through the birth of a tiny dependent child, bringing with it a glimpse of a different kind of future.
Most significantly, it is a gift that demands something of us: that we respond in hope. Given the mighty challenges that lie ahead for humankind, hope is the one thing we cannot afford to be without.
The Rev Canon Alison Joyce is rector of St Bride’s Church in London