What message are we sending?
At a workshop on loneliness in April, when a number of examples had been given as to how the problem was being addressed in different churches, one minister said: 'Just please don't ask us to do anything more at Christmas!'
No, there's no need to do anything more. But there is a need to do some things differently. The church has a vital role to play here in getting a clear message across.
The problem of loneliness at Christmas is well documented. Some churches now offer special services like 'blue liturgies', communal meals which are open to everyone, and other activities and drop-in sessions between Christmas and New Year. These are especially important at a time when so many regular activities shut down for the duration of the holidays. But they can seem too much to organise after all the extra services and celebrations of the pre-Christmas period. Sympathies go to that minister who asked us not to give him anything more to do during the festive season. He, and so many others, are simply too exhausted even to contemplate it.
So my response to him, and indeed to all churches, is simply: do less, not more, at Christmas, but change the time at which you do some of it!
This is about getting to the root of one of the causes of loneliness. It often isn't realised that busyness, over-activity, and overspending alike are all ways of both compensating for and concealing it. And when the activities and the spending stop, the loneliness sometimes becomes even more acute, and not just among older people, younger ones - particularly single parents - are often most affected.
If we can get across how unimportant money and spending is to the central message of Christmas, even before Advent begins, it could help to reduce some of the frenetic activity associated with excessive shopping. This could help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, too, and it will certainly help reduce levels of personal debt that are so often the cause of depression and worse in the post-Christmas period, which in turn exacerbate loneliness even more.
We also need to consider moving some of the services and celebrations normally taking place before Christmas to the period that follows it. There are, after all, twelve days of Christmas. Many pre-Christmas services, such as carol services, could logically be held in the days after 25th December. The words of many of our carols actually refer to the period from Christmas Eve through to Epiphany (beginning with 'Silent Night' and ending with 'We Three Kings'). But everything in our calendars focuses on Christmas Day itself, and not on what happens afterward. This is all wrong.
After all, Christmas is the beginning, not the end, of a season. It's the beginning of 'Emmanuel, God with us'. After the birth of a baby, we do not lock the newborn child in an empty building, go home and have a party, then sleep off the hangover for the next ten days. He or she becomes the centre of our attention. Isn't it time that we brought the same attitude to our Christmas preparations and celebrations? And help to reduce the loneliness of Jesus himself while we're about it?Ruth Grayson