ONE hundred years ago, the world was still suffering the effects of the Great War. It had not been ‘over by Christmas’, and for years following the 1918 Armistice, many hard questions were asked of both man and God.
Yet there was another question gripping the nation, one which to this day we hear throughout the Christmas pantomime season: “Do you believe in fairies?”
Between 1917 and 1920 two little girls, Frances and Elsie from Cottingley near Bradford, claimed to have seen – and photographed – fairies at the bottom of their garden.
Maybe the ensuing ‘Fairy Fever’, which fascinated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other great names of the age, was a welcome relief from the grim realities of war.
Something similar had happened in 1914, when Arthur Machen’s entirely fictional short story, The Bowmen, gave rise to the belief that other winged, ethereal beings had protected British troops at the Battle of Mons.
To this day, some still speak of the Angels of Mons as if the story were factual. Years later, even though Elsie and Frances admitted the fairies in their photographs had been faked, they still implied to the end of their lives that they had indeed met the Little Folk.
In 1922, the author GK Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church by his friend, Monsignor John O’Connor, a priest in our Diocese of Leeds.
Chesterton found the ardent atheism of post-war Britain to be a paradox, especially when people who denied the existence of the Holy Spirit replaced the transcendent void which that created with a belief in almost any kind of unholy spook!
Christian faith is not belief in the unbelievably far-fetched: it is demanding and has consequences. Shepherds living a poor and tough life aren’t given to flights of fancy, yet more than 2,000 years ago, a group of them claimed that they had seen an unearthly bright light and heard an angel speak to them.
They had nothing to gain, and in fact had everything to lose. Jeopardising their meagre livelihoods by leaving their sheep at the mercy of thieves and wild animals, and opening themselves to ridicule or even being stoned to death for blasphemy, they ran to tell everyone that the Son of God had been born to a carpenter’s wife – in a stable!
Angels appearing to humans as God’s messengers is a belief common to Jews, Christians and Muslims as well as to several other faiths. They are often depicted as ‘heralds’ with trumpets, announcing important news.
The word ‘angel’ is used today in many comforting, euphemistic ways by non-believers, not yet ready to encounter God, but still prepared to meet His messengers halfway.
Although the angel’s appearance to the shepherds was extraordinary, the angel’s message was simple: that a child was born; who that child really was; and, where they could find him. The song sung by the angelic chorus was equally simple: give glory to God and peace and goodwill to one another.
At this time of year, the message of peace and goodwill resonates in both Christian and secular stories.
Dickens’s A Christmas Carol may not mention Jesus by name, but at its core is the moral of spiritual admonishments warming a cold heart and warning a cold world.
The Bible recommends being hospitable to strangers, in case we are ‘…entertaining angels unawares’.
Jesus went even further when He said that when we show loving kindness to those who may seem the hardest to love – the homeless, the stranger, the prisoner – we are actually doing these actions to Him.
This is shown in the story of St Martin of Tours, whose Feast Day may deliberately have been chosen as the day on which to sign the First World War Armistice: November 11.
Martin was a Roman soldier and on a cold winter’s night took pity on a homeless beggar. He cut his own warm cloak in half and shared it with the poor man.
Later, in a vision, he saw Christ wearing the half-cloak and, from that day on, Martin became a man of peace.
Whether trumpeted or tweeted, we love to share good news with friends at our side; and when troubled by bad news, we need someone on our side. A true friend is not one whose love for us depends on our love being given in return.
A true friend will be there for us when all others have judged and rejected us. Christians believe that true ‘friend’ is Jesus – but even those who are not yet prepared to accept His friendship can enjoy keeping His Feast.
Fairy, angel or star: whatever you call the glittering form atop the Christmas tree, may it be a reminder of the Good News of God’s message of peace and goodwill to you this Christmas.
And I believe that’s no fairy story!
The Right Reverend Marcus Stock is Bishop of Leeds.