A cartoon in the current issue of the New Yorker shows two working men pumping up a giant inflatable Christmas tree next to a store that sells Christmas trees. "You know," says one to the other, "it doesn't seem any time at all since we were pumping up the tree last Christmas!"
A mordant cartoon for a merry season. It captures that part of the underlying spirit of Christmas Present: once again, the old symbols are being pumped up feverishly in order to sustain the purchasing boom. But the cartoon emphasises, too, the absence of that which had been the reality, rather than the spirit, of Christmas -- the festival of the birth of one who redeemed the world. We have lived with this for many years. And indeed, Christmas is not the only institution to have a hollow feel about it. From the church to the royal family, the former pillars of society as we know it today look empty.
This past year in Britain, the leaders of both the major Christian denominations -- Anglicanism and Catholicism -- have warned that their faiths were about to disappear. These were utterances as remarkable for not being much remarked upon as for their content: as Brian Appleyard wrote in the New Statesman (17 September), we are on the edge of a life without the prop of the church.
Not that the very large majority of people ever darken its doors. But the church props up so much else: political life, constitutional life, military life, moral reference, the BBC, education, the appearance of Britain's cities, towns and villages, and the sense of self-definition of all the national components -- English, Scots, Welsh and Irish - of British life, as well as of …