One of our Big Issue sellers has decided to be Father Christmas. I chat with him from time during the year and buy his paper, so there is a sort of affinity between us.
There is something about good conversation, however brief it is, which connects you to a person. If you talk with them often enough you discover a sort of kinship.
Another Big Issue seller in our town has grandchildren in Romania. She has to get on a bus and travel for an hour or so to get to her ‘patch’. It is not the only bus she has taken in recent years and we have often talked about this, and about what it feels like to have children and grandchildren living far away. We occasionally give each other a hug on parting.
Our Father Christmas seller is also from Romania. He is trying very hard to convince passersby of the festive nature of this season, but his “Ho, Ho, Ho” sounds a little tired and uncertain. He is imitating another people’s language, after all, rather than speaking it. He finds it difficult to speak their language because he does not quite understand their mindset, especially in regard to him and to other Romanians. Also, I do not think that a jocund Father Christmas, or the real reason for the festivities, are at the forefront of the minds of many of those who pass him by, whether or not they pick up a copy of the Big Issue. If they do pick one up, they are more likely to do so out of a mingled sense of helplessness and guilt, rather than as a result of having paused for the kind of exchange which brings joy to all parties involved.
There is a transparency about this whole scenario, in regard to the seller dressed as Father Christmas, as if we all know that it is a rather tired game. But when I stop to talk with him, or even as I think of him, I see through the Santa disguise to his frailty. I also sense the uncertainties and anxieties of others in the street, and their frailty too. One or two of them are wearing Santa hats. Another wears a bright pink coat, an early Christmas present, perhaps.
There is a certain pathos about it all. This being said, I would not describe the situation as an unhappy one. It is just normality trying to enter into the spirit of the season. Everyone is trying very hard, but most are unsure of its purpose, or of the meaning of the festival itself. Perhaps they would rather it was called something else, as it sometimes is. In the US you wish people ‘happy holidays’, rather than 'Happy Christmas'.
But in Romania, Christ is still at the heart of it all. It is still Christ-mas. Presents are exchanged on December 6th, St. Nicholas' Day, and the season extends into early January with an emphasis on family and community and with much carol singing and different kinds of festive foods. My Big Issue seller, dressed as Santa Claus, must be feeling quite disorientated as he stands alone outside a clothing retail chain next to a chemist. The shops have somehow obliterated the saintliness of Nicholas.
Perhaps he senses that many of the people in the street are wondering what they are doing there too, and he feels a kind of affinity with their anxiety and uncertainty about the meaning and purpose of all this shopping. There is an underlying greeting, and even something of prayer, in his rather tremulous “Ho, Ho, Ho”. For a moment, the pedestrian precinct is a quite different place. It is transfigured. We sense the words ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ penetrating the banality of the words being called out by the Big Issue seller. They seem to be spoken from within human history, projected by the Romanian from his own culture and religion. I think he is also picking up on something in our collective subconscious, the need to say ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ in response to a divine greeting sensed in rare moments of stillness during this season.
The Christ of Christmas is waiting to greet us. He knows us well and greets us in his vulnerability, in the risk he takes in coming into the obscurity of his own circumstances, of having to be born in someone’s garage. In the years to come, he will know more rejection and disappointment. He will know pain and failure, as we do, but he will embrace our pain and failure with a child’s joy. He experiences the same joy in encountering us, as he did that first odd assortment of visitors, a couple of farm labourers and three foreign dignitaries.