IN NEWCASTLE for Beth’s graduation – a proud and happy occasion – and I’m also able to catch up with old friends, taking advantage of their unquestioning and always generous hospitality. People I met 30 or more years ago through church, some of whom – like me – no longer attend for one reason or another (mostly a conscious decision, rather than the casual drift away theory beloved of the C of E to explain falling numbers) and others who still attend regularly, their faith strengthened by the years. I reflect that, whichever category they happen to be in, the memories are happy ones, and the friendships forged through the church connection have, almost without exception, proved  lasting and solid.

I wander into Newcastle for a bit of serious Christmas shopping, telling myself that maybe the White House should, after all, have taken Christ out of the Christmas tree (see previous post), and that it would make a lot of sense to celebrate it as an entirely secular season (as indeed it once was): an excuse for partying and present-giving and general jollity, to lift the gloom of the bleak mid-winter days. There is, as I look around, precious little evidence of its being a religious festival, and I can’t even spot Jesus, Mary and Joseph on a Christmas card any more. As for the spirit of generosity and goodwill – well, we all know what happened to that.

Then I see a queue – a long, orderly English queue snaking up Northumberland Street. People shuffling silently along in the bitter north east wind, transfixed by the annual spectacle which is Fenwicks’ window display. And lo and behold it’s a nativity scene – or rather a series of scenes – featuring not just the holy family, angels, shepherds, wise men and donkeys, but a camel or two and, inexplicably, a large owl and what looks suspiciously like a polar bear.

Earlier, at the Metro station, I’d found myself without change for the ticket machine. A young woman asked me how much I needed and I told her I’d like change for a tenner. “No – how much is the ticket?” she asked, and counted the full fare into my hand. I protested that I couldn’t possibly accept it but she insisted. “What goes round comes round. Take it, or you’ll miss the train. Happy Christmas!”

I’ll drink to that.


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