If the Gospel accounts are true, that first Christmas will have been a fearful and lonely one for Mary. Fearful not only because childbirth can itself be frightening, but because Herod was seeking to kill her son. And lonely not only because of her circumstances – being both pregnant and unmarried, her condition was scandalous and isolating – but because of the way these had been announced to her. The angelic visit would have been scarcely comprehensible at the time and almost incommunicable afterwards.
But whatever happened then, Christmas can certainly be fearful and lonely for Christians over two thousand years later. In the Muslim-majority world, they can risk martrydom. In secularised western Europe, they are safe enough, but often seem irrelevant and sometimes even ridiculous. Stephen Crabb caught the mood in his recent Wilberforce Lecture to the Conservative Christian Fellowship. “It is easier for a politician to admit to smoking weed or watching porn, than it is to admit that they might take prayer seriously in their daily life,” he said. Some would reply that it is a lot less pleasant to be beheaded for one’s faith by ISIS than joshed for it on, say, Newsnight. But Christianity has a long history of surviving persecution. Whether it will cope as well with indifference is unclear.
The Gospel goes on to say that after Christ’s birth and presentation and finding, Mary reflected on what she had seen and heard and “kept all these sayings in her heart”. This is an image if not of loneliness then at least of solitude. In old age, many years later, she will surely have kept his murder, which she witnessed, in her heart too. Christians believe that this death was swallowed up by his resurrection. But this return is followed in the story by a second departure – the Ascension, another separation from her son for the mother who by then was surely also a widow.
Whether any of this happened or not, Christmas is certainly a very lonely time for very many people. For those left alone with their memories – not to mention the bereaved, sick and dying – it can be an unhappy time, in which their condition, set against the seasonal jollity, can seem all the more bleak. Some, especially older people, will feel that they have little choice but to keep their own memories in their hearts since these, too, cannot properly be described and thus shared even with friends and family.
But Mary’s tale does contains one account of complete happiness – or rather of a kind of fierce joy: the poem known as the Magnificat, founded as it is on Old Testament models. It may be significant that it is proclaimed not when she is alone but in company – in this case, that of a family member: her cousin Elizabeth. For it is Elizabeth’s confirmation that she, too, is pregnant that confirms the angel’s news of Mary’s own: “For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” The language may be exalted but the occasion is humdrum – two pregnant women meeting in a family encounter, like many that will take place this Christmas, and have done so for Christmases immemorial.
Solitude can be no bad thing, but we all need other people – whatever our views, whatever our beliefs. The very stuff of Christmas, with its cards and presents and celebrations, is bound up with others. Atheists can feel this no less than Christians: if you doubt it, read Mark Wallace’s Tuesday piece on this site. The child born in a stable seems to have been so open to others as to have been willing to lay down his life for them – whatever happened next. “For he feeleth for our sadness,/And he shareth in our gladness.”