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Even on the shortest day, we refuse to succumb to darkness. That’s a cause for hope

Despite what feels like the irredeemable sadness of the world, we seek out beauty, friendship, fairy lights - and wine that costs too much

Last week, on a particularly rainy and dark night, I was up-sold a bottle of wine by a rather effective sommelier. “I will never financially recover from this mid-range Côtes du Rhône on a ludicrous restaurant mark-up,” I thought to myself. “Oh don’t worry about it Finn,” my friend reassured me, “it’s Christmas!” We shared the bottle and, thankfully, the bill.

I tell you this rather banal story because it caused me to reflect on advent season. Supposedly a time of deep contemplation, religious reflection on peace and joy, and theological discipline, dedicated entirely to the idea of goodwill between men. Sure. But it is also a time of frivolity, moderate gluttony, and sloth. How many expensive bottles of wine or second-servings of roast potatoes have been justified under the universal rule: treat yourself, it’s Christmas!

This is perhaps not what those gathered in the manger in Bethlehem all those years ago intended for yuletide. But, as the year draws to a close and the days become oppressively short, the dark somehow more stifling than ever, I think light indulgence is no bad thing either.

Because Christmas forces reflection. The year ends and we scramble to tie up its themes and trends into neat little boxes with almost slavish devotion. End-of-year lists flood the internet; Time Person of the Year receives protracted speculation; Reeling in the Years is somehow, after all this time, still going strong. And now, in the denouement of 2023 – a hard year for many reasons – this exercise may be a rather wearying one.


Lately, it seems the same themes are cropping up with suspicious frequency. Perhaps this started in 2016, the annus horribilus for the liberal disposition, with the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum. Each year is pronounced as a new low for democratic institutions; liberal values, western solidarity; global security; religious freedom; yada yada yada. “The liberal order is already dead,” as Unherd rather glibly put it in 2022. In 2016 the New York Times declared “The Death of Liberalism”. “Liberal democracy is in crisis” said the Guardian in 2018. If liberalism can die and be resurrected this many times, it must be rather robust indeed.

It is hard to know whether we are actually living in a period of unique darkness or whether we just like to assume we are in a state of perma-crisis – whether we simply find it satisfying to preach that the end is nigh. There seems something very human about emphasising the extent of chaos and disaster; about being so quick to believe the world is beset by evil and that little light can shine through. Young people – particularly teenage girls, as reams of data suggest – appear the most glum. A narrative of inexorable decline has abounded for years now. Nostalgia for a past that probably looks a lot more rosy in the rear view has taken over.

At this time of year, if it is not completely dark, it is at best twilight. But rather than succumb to it, people string up twinkling Christmas lights

But no matter how true these pronouncements are – whether about the death of liberalism or the collapse of western solidarity – they point to one simple fact: it is terribly hard to be optimistic about much right now. This is a shame because, for all of the brutal impositions of 2023, there is much to be hopeful about too: the shocking potential of artificial intelligence; progress made in climate science; the fact that Covid-19 has, for the most part, been consigned to memory; that Ukraine remains resilient; that even without Johnny Sexton, the Irish rugby team might still thrive.

But I can’t help but be brought back to Christmas and the expensive wine, thoughts closer to home, away from the big issues of technological revolution and pestilence and climate change. If it is really true that the world is worse than it has ever been – and I am not sure it is – then it is these small things that give us cause for hope.

At this time of year, if it is not completely dark, it is at best twilight. But rather than succumb to it, people string up twinkling Christmas lights. It is cold, sometimes too cold to go out. So we gift each other hats and scarves. Only during this time of year do we put wreaths on our front doors and decorations on indoor trees and miniature mangers on our front tables.

That, I think, is the greatest case for optimism in 2024. Even if the world is irredeemably sad and aggravating, people will still – as they always have done – attempt to make things beautiful and put up Christmas lights to cut through winter’s thick darkness. And, there is still a slightly-too-expensive bottle of red wine to share with your friend on a cold and rainy weeknight in mid-December. Perhaps all of these little things are in fact the big things. And perhaps end-of-year hand-wringing about the inevitable collapse of democracy and the over-reported death of liberalism is just that: meaningless hand-wringing.