This was our first Christmas that was really about the children. The eldest didn’t get it last year – she was only just two, and the youngest merely a few weeks old. COVID also canceled Christmas across the UK at the last minute, so it was just us four and my parents. But this year the whole thing was full of friends and relations – the three-year old (and her cousins) were giddy, the one-year old was ripping and wriggling in the wrapping paper, passed hither and yon between his endless supply of aunts.
Children are rightly centred at Christmas. “The child is a king” – something true because, at Christmas, the King is a child. This is all a gift for the adults, because the softness and weakness of little ones confronts us again and again with just what it was that Christ became. Many moments of holding my little boy this Christmas just broke me. To think that Christ became one of these.
These are feelings I did not expect once. In that brief stretch of early adulthood before my generation started having children, the family aldermen (and women) kept saying Christmas would be much better once there were children again. I wasn’t so sure. I quite enjoyed being able to read a warming book before the family arrived, or slip out for a few pints on Christmas Eve.
But they were right. The children came, and I barely remember those few unremarkable grown-up Christmases. This is how it works: your parents tell you it will all change when you have kids. You’re sure they’re exaggerating. And then it all changes when you have kids.
I felt this all the more this year because, in the run up to Christmas, the news in the UK seemed replete with stories of violence toward and neglect of children. After the first, I couldn’t read another. I held my children’s little bodies, kissed their foreheads, and promised them safety.
Yet, historically, the Church does not let us shy away at Christmas from the world of dangers in which Christ was an infant. In the Church Calendar, Christmas Day is swiftly followed by the Feast of the Holy Innocents on the 28th of December – the day when the Church has long commemorated the infant boys slaughtered by Herod in Matthew 2:16-18. It is a day to consider the reality of child martyrs, the power of youthful faith, and the suffering of children in general.
Holy Innocents is actually the second child martyr feast in the Advent/Christmas period. St. Lucy is remembered on 13th December (a feast which, I recently wrote elsewhere, is noted by T.S. Eliot in one of his Christmas poems). And there are other prominent martyrs celebrated at this time of year too – St. Andrew, St. Thomas, St. Stephen.
Why turn our minds to the suffering of children when otherwise so mindful of their joy? Because it is meet and right so to do. Christ did not arrive into a world in which children were kept safe in cotton wool, but in which they were altogether too vulnerable.
The Holy Innocents are even there in the text of Scripture, so we evangelicals should be keen to speak of them in our Christmas expositions – but how often do we recall them? Our chronologically confused Christmas means that the magi are untimely stuffed into the cowshed with the shepherds – they’re shorn of Epiphany these days, and so their return to the East, and everything after, trails off into unspecificity. And so, we forget the Holy Innocents – the first, unwitting martyrs of the Church.
But this year, in the thick of parenting small people, the Holy Innocents have weighed on me.
In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. More of a fable or a Platonic myth than a short story, it describes Omelas – a fictional city blessed with perfect happiness and harmony, celebrating its annual summer festival. But Omelas’ prosperity depends upon one thing: the perpetual misery and suffering of one small child, locked in a dark and squalid vault beneath the city. And everybody knows about it.
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery
Like any great myth, there are myriad ways Le Guin’s story can be taken. The child can be seen as a child from some far-flung corner of the world, obliterated as collateral damage in a robotic drone strike, or drowned trying to cross the English Channel or Rio Grande. These deaths, we all know, make our lives possible.
Yet I have thought this year more of the children within our own walls and borders, whose suffering makes the society we see around us possible.
I thought of the teenage boy from my wife’s school class, who went missing for a night after having a breakdown because of the pressure he feels from all sides to apply for university, when he has no desire to at all.
I thought of the preteens I see walking to school near my house each day who wear facemasks whilst walking alone outdoors, before wearing them all day in classrooms, because the adults in their lives have driven fear and the illusion of control so far into their heads that they think this is somehow an uncostly option.
I thought of the young girls told by those same adults that it’s of no consequence if they want to change their pronouns and the names their mothers gave them, jack themselves up with testosterone, and amputate their breasts, because the most important thing in life is self-realisation.
These things, we tell ourselves, allow both the children and us freedom – from under-achievement, from illness, from oppression. We wish ourselves to be free from these things, and so we must afford those freedoms to our children.
But these freedoms are an illusion. We know we are not really free. And so do the citizens of Omelas.
They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.
We know that jumping our young through academic hoops, masking them up for the best years of their lives, and letting them mutate and mutilate their bodies is not freedom. But to admit that would be to admit that we ourselves are not free when we pursue ambition, health, and self-realisation. To suggest we might limit the children would be to suggest we might need to limit ourselves – and we can’t have that.
We know that for some, the cost of these things becomes ultimate. Yet the stories of such young people are usually swiftly removed from the public eye – the academically pressured suicides, the socially stunted mask-wearers, the body-wrecked detransitioners. You can find them easily enough if you like, beneath the spires of Omelas. You will probably be warned about them when necessary. But they are largely forgotten and obscured. These unhappy few are the necessary cost of all that we have built.
Yet the Feast of Holy Innocents shows us here in Omelas up for what we are: Herods all. We wish the little ones dead so that we can keep hold of our thrones.
Yet, as the title of Le Guin’s story suggests, occasionally a citizen of Omelas cannot live bring themselves to live there any longer.
Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
I have found the Feast of Holy Innocents this year a strange but fitting vantage point from which to look forward into the New Year. Looking ahead into 2022, into another year of parenting, of studying, of teaching the youth in our congregation, of working hard at what The Davenant Institute is building, I think again of what my older relatives said: it all changes when you have kids. The longer you go as a parent, the more you think of the world in which your children, and the children of your community, will grow up. Whatever I build in 2022, it surely has to be for them.
More and more of us find ourselves walking away from Omelas. We will not live in a city which will not suffer the little children, but instead insists that they suffer. Where are we going? What are we building? Those still in Omelas cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But we know where we are going.
And that is enough.