Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Literalist’s Christmas

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about (Mt.1:18)

How it irks some people to hear the Christmas Story. How some like to debunk the whole business, setting out all the pagan motifs and festivals that have been usurped – “stolen” – by Christians to give us the familiar Christmas emblems. Oh, perfidy thy name is Christian!

I recall a conversation I had with a Jehovah’s Witness who explained conspiratorially that the famous children’s “Ladybird Books” had produced a little volume explaining the origins of many of our familiar Christmas customs. He explained, sotto voce, that “they” didn’t like it and so the volume was mysteriously removed from the shelves of WH Smith. Next day I went to a book store and bought a copy off the shelf and have it on my desk as I write this. It is called “Christmas Customs”. I am not sure who “they” are but…

Most of the cosy and heart-warming motifs we relish today were given us by Charles Dickens, including snow. How often have children in the UK looked out their windows on Christmas morning and felt that pang of disappointment at seeing the ground barren and bare with no covering of snow? More often than not it is my experience.

The reason we think of snow at Christmas is that Dickens always portrayed it that way. In his own childhood, it snowed for eight Christmases in a row, from 1812 -1820, the first eight years of his life. This was his abiding memory of the festive season and so it got put into his books, along with a good deal else that seems so appropriate for the Festive Season.

Christian Customs

Here are some more customs we associate with the season:

Carols: Come from the Greek word for chorus and means a round song. Originally carols were sung throughout the year to mark different festivals, such as Midsummer, Easter, May that hails the growing season and November that celebrates the harvest.

The Crib: Was first made by St Francis and was originally a real cave, containing real animals and Mary and Joseph played by real people. It dramatises the story and no bad thing when you are trying to get folk to imagine what it must have been like.

Holly and ivy: Holly is a symbol of good luck and of man, while ivy was thought to be a symbol of woman. Holly and ivy intertwined was traditionally supposed to ensure peace and harmony in the home. Christians linked the symbols to the Christmas story and all the elements are there in the song. The white flower of holly symbolising Christ’s purity, the red berry his blood, the prickle his crown of thorns and the bitter taste of its bark the bitter vinegar offered him on the Cross. The ivy is included because of its association with an older, pagan version of the song depicting rivalry between male and female. Of course, there is always the evergreen motif for everlasting life.

Christmas cards: The first Christmas card was sent by Sir Henry Cole who, on finding himself short of time to write letters, commissioned an artist to design a festive card to send to friends. Sir Henry also had a major interest in the burgeoning post office business of the day. These days we have cards made for us every year and still find ourselves short of time.

Advent: is the period of four weeks before Christmas when we watch for the advent (coming) of the Lord. Advent calendars originally held appropriate Christmas scenes behind twenty four numbered doors to concentrate our minds on this special season.

Twelfth Night: celebrates the coming of the wise men with gifts for the new-born king. This marks the official end of the Christmas season and, if you haven’t already done so, you should take down your decorations now.

Yes, the story has grown down the centuries and all sorts of things have been pressed into service to relate the history and significance of those events faithfully recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The story is familiar enough and if you haven’t seen it acted out in a local church or school nativity play then you have missed a treat. What really happened on that first Christmas and what are we to make of the legends, icons and motifs that have grown up around this event?

As it has come down to us through centuries of telling and retelling Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem late at night after a long and arduous journey. Travelling from Inn to Inn they found themselves turned away. Finally, a friendly innkeeper took pity on them and, since his rooms were all taken, offered them a stable as accommodation.

That same night Jesus was born in a stable and laid in an animal feeding trough, a manger. Shepherds on a hill heard the “first noel”, the song of the angels announcing Jesus’ advent and wise men, perhaps astronomers, travelled from the east to pay homage to the new-born king.

No Room at the Inn?

However, there would almost certainly have been no Inns in Bethlehem, no hotels or commercial accommodation. Bethlehem was a small village set apart from main routes so there would be no commercial advantage in having an Inn.

It is worth remembering that Mary and Joseph were travelling back to their home village. Surely there would have been some relatives there and surely that would have been their first port of call in seeking accommodation. Middle Eastern rules of hospitality would have ensured that room would have been found for them.

So where did this idea of the Inn come from? They key is in Luke 2:7 where we read:

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn”

The Greek word translated “inn” is kataluma and can be found again in Luke 22:11 to refer to the guest room where Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. The normal word for “inn” is pandocheion, used in Luke 10:34 to describe the place where the Good Samaritan took his injured friend:

Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn (pandocheion) and took care of him”

Joseph and Mary would have put up with his closest relatives in the village; if not Joseph’s then Mary’s. It was a planned journey and so Joseph would surely have had the wit to make plans. They would not have arrived so late in Mary’s term and so probably arrived weeks before, giving them time to make the appropriate arrangements. In such a home there would have been one main room and, if they could afford it, a guest room – kataluma.

In a lower area of the main room there would have been a place where animals were brought in at night. If the guest room was full then here, among the domestic beasts, that Jesus was born and “laid in a manger because there was no room for him in the guest room”. There would have been a midwife, family and the simple comforts of a Bethlehem home. Jesus was born in the main room of a peasant home.

Keeping Perspective, Maintaining the Truth

A combination of misunderstanding language and cultural references, embellishing and romanticising the story, has led to the nativity story as we know it today from school Christmas nativities, and there is a lesson here in Bible interpretation. It is important to find and tell the truth but it is also important to remember that culture plays an vital and inevitable part in the stories we tell.

From modern interpretations of Shakespeare to Bible characters dressed in medieval dress in great paintings we recast old stories to fit them into our own culture and time. It helps us to identify with important events from distant times and places, and that is alright, as long as we identify and pass on the essential elements of the story.

Mary and Joseph were ordinary people with an extraordinary pedigree who were used mightily of God to usher in the time of refreshing from God, when grace would fulfil law and faith would receive hope in Christ. Theirs was a testing experience notwithstanding the help of family and the assurances of God and their example of faithfulness is an inspiration. Jesus was Immanuel “God with us” and he really was “with us”, identifying with the poor and outcast in his conception, birth, life and death.

His coming was the fulfilment of prophecy and announced by angels to the poorest in society, his life was sought from the beginning and he was a fugitive and outcast. Wise men sought him and seek him still because Christmas marks the beginning of a journey that would end on Calvary. Calvary where Christ died for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:17)

There are many things in life to celebrate, to sing carols about and to give us cheer and consolation in an otherwise difficult world and we mustn’t let the literalists rob us of the joy of this special season. The next time someone (you know who I mean) tells you the truth about Christmas’ pagan roots tell them the truth about Jesus and defy them to be miserable in the face of such great good news.

A very Happy Christmas

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