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The first Christmas message was delivered by King George V, over the wireless, on Christmas Day 1932. Many people stood up in their living rooms to hear it, as they would for the national anthem. (There’s no need to do that now: please remain seated.)
The King’s Christmas broadcast was written by Rudyard Kipling and began with the words: ‘I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all; to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.’
I’ll try to speak from my heart too – which means that I should probably start by admitting that I don’t really believe in Christmas.
That is, I don’t believe that redemption and enlightenment are any more likely just because we happen to have attached a now mostly secular festival to that time of year when heathens traditionally celebrated the winter solstice and longed for the return of the light.
And I fear I must conclude, after careful analysis of all the peer-reviewed scholarly evidence, that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
What do I believe in? I believe in the idea of a university. And, on reflection, my idea of a university has something in common with the true spirit of Christmas.
I’m currently drinking from a disposable cup of high-street-chain coffee, with a picture of Santa on it. It’s only 13th November (yes: in the best tradition of Christmas messages, I made this one earlier) and the festival of capitalism that is Christmas has already begun. In fact ‘Christmas’ is the most popular search term on the John Lewis website from the beginning of September onwards. Christmas now comes not once a year, but every eight months.
The journalist Christopher Hitchens once wrote that Christmas gave him an idea of what it must be like to live in a one-party state. Nowhere was safe, he felt, from ‘the collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy’. It’s an old lament: Christmas has been ruined by joyless corporate overkill.
But still. Even the part-time Scrooges among us can find some enchantment in the tinsel and lights, the giving of thoughtful gifts and the enduring beauty of Christmas carols. And we manage to wrestle from this season a sort of battered, desultory joy that we throw in the face of the dark and the cold and the years hurtling scarily by.
I feel the same about my idea of the university.
Sometimes it can feel as if universities have, like Christmas, become too much of a market – so that everything has to be accounted for in the language of quantifiable outputs and performance indicators.
And yet the university remains a community – in fact, it’s a community or it’s nothing. A university needs people to agree to fill up its classrooms at agreed times each week, to talk about agreed subjects like contract law, or mental health nursing, or the American civil war. It needs people to show up for its after-hours dancercise classes, gospel choirs and jigsaw clubs. It needs everyone, from the cleaners whooshing hoovers along corridors in the early morning to the security staff doing the rounds at night, to feel as if they are part of a whole. Uni, after all, means ‘one’.
A university is made up of millions of such small acts of good will. They may not amount to much on their own. But together they create a delicate ecosystem in which every part affects every other part. A university is like a little town, and it can, very occasionally, feel as lyrical and magical as the Bethlehem in Phillips Brooks’s famous carol.
When I was learning to drive, back in the second millennium BCE, my instructor told me that when I got behind the wheel of a car, I wasn’t just responsible for my own driving. I was also responsible for the driver in front of me and the driver behind me, both of whom might be dangerous idiots. (Charitably, he didn’t consider the possibility that I might be a dangerous idiot.) And I remember this striking me like an epiphany: we are all connected, even to strangers we will never meet, whether we like it or not.
Every September, our students arrive from all over the country, and the world, and exchange germs to which they have not previously been exposed and are not immune. Hence the phenomenon of ‘freshers’ flu’. An immunologist once joked that a Martian looking down at us from space would think that human beings are just a convenient means of transport for viruses. Students give each other freshers’ flu – and sometimes they give it to me – because we are all linked by invisible thread. We are, as Martin Luther King wrote, ‘caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny’.
At Christmas, we recognise this mutuality by wishing ‘peace and goodwill’ to everyone. In universities we have a name for the same recognition: collegiality.
Some people think that collegiality is a mushy, woolly, sentimental thing, which, ideally, we need to replace with the hard, incentivising logic and contractual obligations of a market. They’re wrong. Collegiality is what is really hard. It can be as hard to get on with other members of a university as it can be to put up with an annoying member of one’s extended family at Christmas dinner. Loudon Wainwright called Christmas ‘the annual crisis of love’. A university is a permanent crisis of love. But crises are what we struggle through because it’s worth getting to the other side. And we keep struggling at it because people need other people – and they are completed by each other.
An Irish Gaelic proverb goes: Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. It means: In each other’s shadow we flourish.
The point of collegiality is not to create some bland corporate homogeneity, but to reaffirm that everyone in our community matters as much as everyone else. This is also a key part of the Christmas story. A royal baby can be born in a lowly cattle shed. The humblest and most ‘ordinary’ are also sacred and special.
The Talmud says that while a human being creates identical coins from the same die, God ‘coins all people from Adam’s die and not one looks like another’. Human beings are not minted coins; they are each unique, and each forms a unique world in which they are the centre of the universe. To save one human life, the Talmud says, is to save an entire world.
This belief that all human lives are priceless, that the dignity and worth of every person is non-negotiable, is enshrined in most religions, and in the modern notion of human rights. As it needs to be, because we keep on forgetting that other human beings are as messy, fragile, elusive, complicated, maddening, precious and inimitable as we are.
I try not to forget it. I often walk through the student village on my way from Lime Street station to Mount Pleasant. When I see parents loading a semester’s worth of their children’s lives into or out of cars, I remind myself that everyone is a royal baby to someone. When I look up at the hundreds of tiny windows, each one about the size of a poster and marking out a precise portion of rental income, I remind myself that behind each window is a person, a life, an entire world. A student is not a statistic, or a customer, or a funding source, or part of some homogeneous ‘student voice’. He or she is a human being, like me.
A university is a community in which everyone is unique. And this is also what we learn in that ‘annual crisis of love’ that is Christmas. So I wish everyone – LJMU students, staff, alumni and our friends in Liverpool, other universities and everywhere else – a very happy Christmas. May we find comfort and joy in each other’s shadow.