A few months ago, I moved from the edge of a city to the heart of a village. The house I now call home is old and (sometimes painfully) low-ceilinged – and has witnessed well over 300 Christmases.
As it approaches, I’ve been thinking about the people who’ve woken up on Christmas morning here before, crossed the road to the same ancient church, and drawn a seat to the same fireplace.
Some years will have seen loud and happy gatherings, the house filled with the smell of cinnamon and cloves and the sound of wassailing (high on my personal to-do list this year).
Other years may have seen the house frozen in grief, hunkered down, its inhabitants trying to find their way through short, dark days.
These layers of experience have brought to mind a different but related layering – the shades of meaning that have attached themselves to the word ‘comfort’. It’s an idea closely associated with the light and warmth of midwinter Christmas. It’s celebrated by a carol popular when the house was new – God rest you merry, gentlemen – with its ‘tidings of comfort and joy’.
But the word’s meaning has shifted starkly through time. Its original sense was muscular: the bringing of strength and the giving of solace to those in distress.
Fast-forward a few centuries and it’s now widely understood as the absence of friction or challenge. Comfort zone, comfort fit…
While comfort in a trouser may be deeply desirable, the change in the weighting of the word exposes an uncomfortable truth.
What was a brave and kind movement outward, towards another person, has been turned inward, towards the meeting of an individual’s never-quite-satisfied needs.
That shift traces a pattern playing out in our twenty-first century lives. Consumerism, individualism and chronic busyness have distracted and diverted us away from deep connection with each other.
Growing distrust is being exploited by those who seek influence or advantage from it. What someone stands for has become more important than who they stand by.
This year has brought political instability, spiralling poverty and loneliness, and gaping division between countries and across communities.
It’s surely time to reclaim the old and good and true sense of the word ‘comfort’. To stop, be still, look around and find ways to give strength, to bring solace and to alleviate the distress of the people whose ground and air we share.
‘The old that is strong does not wither, / Deep roots are not reached by the frost.’
J R R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring