A week ago many of us looked sadly at the sky. We’d been told something miraculous was happening: Jupiter and Saturn were lining up, the closest in 800 years, appearing as one bright star — the Christmas Star of legend.
Hopelessly I gazed up — at heavy cloud. That’s 2020, I thought!
But it reminded me of another winter night in 1968 when I was just 22, hearing that Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, had entered lunar orbit. The impossible had happened. We were witnesses to history.
I’ll admit I rather went into orbit myself last Thursday, hearing that Boris had pulled off a Brexit deal. Nothing is perfect (ever!), yet we have achieved a historic deal which seemed impossible.
Yes, there will be naysayers but let’s take a moment to rejoice in the fact we can look forward to a new year of BBV: Biden, Brexit and Vaccine.
New starts all round, fresh political horizons and brilliant scientists offering hope. As 2020 draws to a close, the country craves good news.
When you are older (and I’m now in my 75th year) you can’t avoid perspective — the long view. In 1968 our horizons echoed to protest and pain.
Yes, there will be naysayers but let’s take a moment to rejoice in the fact we can look forward to a new year of BBV: Biden, Brexit and Vaccine
With the Cold War and nuclear threat ever-present, the Prague Spring saw hope crushed as Soviet forces invaded. The Vietnam War brought mounting slaughter and outrage, while students (including me) protested all over the world.
Horror came when the civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Democrats’ new hope, Robert F. Kennedy, was slain. There were riots —and police violence.
At home, the Labour Party restricted Commonwealth immigration, Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, a tower block in East London collapsed…
And if the times were not depressing enough, the Hong Kong flu pandemic resulted in up to four million deaths. This was far fewer than the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 which had caused between 25 million and 50 million deaths — but anxiety added to a growing sense of foreboding that the future was under threat.
Then the astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders thrilled a bruised world by sending remarkable pictures of the Moon and Earth to millions of TV viewers.
Contemplating the emptiness of space, Lovell said memorably: ‘The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth.’
The three brave men read the creation story from the Bible, then ended with the moving words: ‘Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.’
But . . . ‘Good Earth’? You’re probably thinking it doesn’t feel very ‘good’ this bleak midwinter. Yes, we should allow ourselves to feel optimism, but the weather is terrible, floods have caused misery and mayhem, livelihoods are lost, debt (national and personal) is horrifying — and the poor planet has been struck by a virus, like a meteor from space.
Now New Year looms, and although optimists like me are rejoicing in the hope offered by BBV, we know that struggle still lies ahead. Chelsea Pensioner and D-Day veteran Bob (Robert) James Sullivan, 98, is seen getting the vaccine
Now the words ‘mutant strain’ make us quail afresh and we fear more lockdowns. Truly, I have never known so many people laid low with depression, fear, anger, confusion and a profound sense of loss, if not actual grief.
Yet as our Queen emphasised in her uplifting, pitch-perfect Christmas address, we’ve also seen kindness, heroic effort, enterprise, courage and patience — enough to make your heart swell with pride.
But for more than nine months we have been terrified for ourselves and our families, blind-sided by science, dazed by diktats, overloaded with information, consumed by frustration and anger with government and ‘covidiots’.
At the root of it all is helpless rage at the ‘thing’ that seems to have spoiled everything and struck at the heart of who we are. The vital question is — will we let it? Will we allow ourselves to give into despair?
The run-up to Christmas lacked party spirit; no pubs full of jolly revellers; no carols rang out the birth of Jesus Christ.
No schoolchildren dressed as Mary, Joseph and shepherds, no proud parents were misty- eyed as clear voices piped, Away In A Manager.
For many, loneliness iced up their heart, and they wondered if it would ever thaw. As the Queen pointed out, all religious groups saw families kept apart. Now New Year looms, and although optimists like me are rejoicing in the hope offered by BBV, we know that struggle still lies ahead.
I, too, have felt tired — as I answered countless letters from unhappy readers of my Saturday advice column. But my postbag brings positives too — stories of love, of recovery after illness, of warm memories that comfort the lonely and bereaved, of courage, of happiness against the odds.
That’s why I reject doom-mongering at times of crisis. For events do settle down. Nothing stays the same — neither the seasons of the year nor the stages in our lives nor the troubles of a nation.
All things pass — and this will too. No matter how profound a grief, how great a loss, gradually it becomes absorbed into your being as you pick up the threads of life. And so it will be for us. It’s a promise.
That’s why perspective is crucial when you feel really down. That’s why we still cling to cherished traditions, handed on within families from generation to generation, like fragile baubles on Christmas trees.
Every year people wail, ‘Why is this happening?’ about awful events then get on with their lives: falling in love, raising children, taking care of aged parents, grieving for loss.
Each Christmas and New Year millions of people remember absent friends, pray for their families, worry about the future — then hunker down stoically, anticipating spring.
Covid can’t change that. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is not a cliché, it’s folk wisdom and the best advice for life.
All we can do is put our heads down and hold hands (reaching out with your heart even if you can’t touch) and march on — for the star of hope may be covered by cloud, but sooner or later it will shine through.
Once, at a time of great personal suffering, I cried out repeatedly, ‘Why me?’ Later, in a hospital waiting room, among pitiful, sick children, came the unexpected revelation: ‘Why not me?’
That question is like a message of hope from the angels. Because it transforms individual sadness into universal understanding — a reminder that you are a part of all humanity. It recognises that everyone carries burdens of unhappiness at some time, yet also burdens of love. It says, ‘We are in this together.’
It reminded me of another winter night in 1968 when I was just 22, hearing that Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, had entered lunar orbit. The impossible had happened. We were witnesses to history. I’ll admit I rather went into orbit myself last Thursday, hearing that Boris had pulled off a Brexit deal
And so we are. That thought is an antidote to despair. The goodness and hope that unite people are far more powerful than what divides.
I look at our Christmas cards and reflect that the imagery of Madonna and child, stable, wise men, and shepherds is precious as it tells a complicated human story of surprise, endurance, poverty, escape, love and pain.
While the angels and star of Bethlehem symbolise the divine — leading us ever forwards into new beginnings, even (whisper it) miracles.
No matter how cynical and secular we are, no matter how sad, no matter how we rage against fate, we all need spiritual uplift, as plants need water. That profound human need keeps people going, pushing us to look upwards at the light.
This unusual season we owe it to ourselves to be hopeful.
On that December night in 1968 I remember, when Apollo 8 emerged into the light after leaving the dark side of the moon, Jim Lovell’s crackling voice memorably announcing, ‘Houston, please be informed there is a Santa Claus.’
What had he seen? He never explained — but isn’t it just magical to imagine?