At this time of year, few sights evoke morefeelings of cheer and goodwill than the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree.
The popularity of a tree at Christmas isdue in part to my great-great grandparents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.After this touching picture was published, many families wanted a Christmastree of their own, and the custom soon spread.
In 1949, I spent Christmas in Malta as anewly-married naval wife. We have returned to that island over the years,including last month for a meeting of Commonwealth leaders; and this year I metanother group of leaders: The Queen’s Young Leaders, an inspirational group,each of them a symbol of hope in their own Commonwealth communities.
Gathering round the tree gives us a chanceto think about the year ahead – I am looking forward to a busy 2016, though Ihave been warned I may have Happy Birthday sung to me more than once or twice.It also allows us to reflect on the year that has passed, as we think of thosewho are far away or no longer with us. Many people say the first Christmasafter losing a loved one is particularly hard. But it’s also a time to rememberall that we have to be thankful for.
It is true that the world has had toconfront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verseof great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: ‘The light shines in thedarkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’.
One cause for thankfulness this summer wasmarking 70 years since the end of the Second World War. On VJ Day, we honouredthe remaining veterans of that terrible conflict in the Far East, as well asremembering the thousands who never returned.
The procession from Horse Guards Parade toWestminster Abbey must have been one of the slowest ever, because so manypeople wanted to say ‘thank you’ to them.
At the end of that war, the people of Oslobegan sending an annual gift of a Christmas tree for Trafalgar Square. It has500 light bulbs and is enjoyed not just by Christians but by people of allfaiths, and of none. At the very top sits a bright star, to represent the Starof Bethlehem.
The custom of topping a tree also goes backto Prince Albert’s time. For his family’s tree, he chose an angel, helping toremind us that the focus of the Christmas story is on one particular family.
For Joseph and Mary, the circumstances ofJesus’s birth – in a stable – were far from ideal, but worse was to come as thefamily was forced to flee the country. It’s no surprise that such a human storystill captures our imagination and continues to inspire all of us who areChristians, the world over.
Despite being displaced and persecutedthroughout his short life, Christ’s unchanging message was not one of revengeor violence but simply that we should love one another. Although it is not aneasy message to follow, we shouldn’t be discouraged; rather, it inspires us totry harder: to be thankful for the people who bring love and happiness into ourown lives, and to look for ways of spreading that love to others, whenever andwherever we can.
One of the joys of living a long life iswatching one’s children, then grandchildren, then great grandchildren, helpdecorate the Christmas tree. And this year my family has a new member to joinin the fun!
The customary decorations have changedlittle in the years since that picture of Victoria and Albert’s tree firstappeared, although of course electric lights have replaced the candles.
There’s an old saying that ‘it is better tolight a candle than curse the darkness’.
There are millions of people lightingcandles of hope in our world today. Christmas is a good time to be thankful forthem, and for all that brings light to our lives.
I wish you a very happy Christmas.