Members of the Theos team reflect on the relevance of the Christmas story in 2020. 18/12/2020
Comfort, Not Nostalgia
Until the mid–nineteenth century, nostalgia was understood as a form of psychosis. In his Dictionary of Music, Rousseau records that Swiss mercenaries were forbidden from singing their folk songs because they induced a painful yearning to return to their country. In 1688, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer had coined the term ‘nostalgia’ for this mal du Suisse (the word combines the Greek for homecoming – nostos – and pain – algos). The condition was connected not only with a liability to desert but also with all kinds of physical symptoms, up to and including death.
Strange then, that we actually quite enjoy a mild version of this dis–ease. More recently, psychologists have identified the ways in which “nostalgia, once evoked, re–establishes psychological equanimity. It elevates mood, self–esteem, and a sense of social connectedness; it fosters perceptions of continuity between past and present; it increases meaning in life; and it “fights off” death cognitions”.
Christmas of course is peak nostalgia, and 2020 peak, peak nostalgia. We are truly experiencing a painful longing for home – and so we eagerly console ourselves with Christmas movie re–watches, festive playlists, tastefully decorated trees, and (if I may be so Scrooge–like) the false catharsis of seasonal charity.
We are searching for a home to which we have not yet been, and by heading in the wrong direction. It can’t be found by hiding from the chaos or bedding down in an invented past. Nostalgia is a siren, diverting us from our necessary journey through the world as it is. Too often, the religious collude, knowing that nostalgia gets a few extra bums on seats. The carols, the plays, the midnight Masses, can be the religious equivalent of a shopping centre Santa’s grotto, drawing eager spiritual shoppers – that is, if they’re not combined with the disruptive politics of the real nativity.
What real nativity? Think of that nativity story that could never be acted in a primary school. It’s the one in Revelation 12, memorably depicted by William Blake (how would that look on a Christmas card?) A woman waits to give birth to a child who will rule the nations with an iron sceptre. A seven–headed dragon stands in front of the woman, ready to devour the child as soon as he is born. It’s creation, the Herod story, the crucifixion, rolled into one – along with every moment that the beautiful, fragile, good looks like it’s going to be strangled at birth.
The child and the woman escape, but the dragon – destined for defeat though it is, goes on to trouble the world for a while. The birth isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning of the end.
I don’t know what this really means for Christmas. It just doesn’t square with what we generally have; that heady combination of nostalgia, hedonism and sentimentality, both sacred and secular. I know that it’s impossible to leave 2020 without knowing that we are still waiting for the hungry to be filled, the rich to be sent away empty, and the powerful to be thrown down.
Paul Bickley is Research Fellow at Theos.
An anthem for Christmas systems angels
I’ve been thinking about that most Christmassy of themes – systems and processes. As I write, there have been 137,997 vaccines administered in a single week since the UK started its COVID–19 vaccine programme. It’s astonishing, and yet we take everything behind the scenes utterly for granted. The scientists who developed it (rightly) get a lot of glory, and the medics who administer it, but what about the logistics geniuses who have made all this possible? We have clapped for carers and supermarket workers, but I’m also raising a glass this week to the bug–fixers, project managers, data professionals, systems–mavens and tech designers. Those whose jobs look to their families, working from home at the other end of the kitchen table, like they are staring at spreadsheets, but who are in fact building and maintaining the infrastructure of our society and making our corona response possible.
As now, so in the ancient world. There is a hanging thread in the nativity narratives, one of many blanks in scripture we are left to fill in. What happened about the census? Caesar’s desire for better data, a clearer understanding of whom he was governing, was the reason for the mass mobilisation of people which ended in an out–house in Bethlehem. Did Mary and Joseph drag themselves – wrung out by a labour who knows how traumatic, exhausted by a newborn and all the random and unexpected visitors – to a desk in the town square, to register? Did some quiet clerk, with accuracy and attention to detail, write their three names in his ledger and wing it off to join thousands of others in a mass first–century spreadsheet, in Rome? We will never know. Not narratively significant.
Goodness knows data and systems can be used to make oppression more efficient, but they also are the unglamorous building blocks of a better world. And yet these vital underpinnings of our lives are always overlooked and those who give their lives to using them for good the least celebrated. We call them boring, bureaucratic. They are anything but. With characteristic insight Chekhov wrote, in exasperation at the mystic–leaning spirituality of other writers like Tolstoy, that “there is more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism”. Christmas has a world–changing, life–upending message which is a deeply spiritual one. But this year, I’m also giving thanks for spreadsheets.
Elizabeth Oldfield is Director of Theos
Christmas markets, Christmas dinners with friends, secret Santa, mince pies, mulled wine, carol services, and time with family and friends: these are my fondest memories of Christmas. They are what brought me joy and solace in a time of year where I often felt lonely, low and disheartened.
While people worried about the presents being just right, who is going to invite whom for Christmas dinner (and speaking of Christmas dinner, it must be perfectly cooked with approximately 17 sides for the turkey and ham), and what they would wear, I worried about the long dark nights that enveloped me into a pit of sadness, the time spent missing family and, ultimately, pining for what Christmas used to be when I was younger.
Youthful Christmases were full of exciting presents that Santa brought me, like my bicycle or trampoline, about joy, parties, and most of all family. As time marched on, our family became smaller and the presents were no longer what I wanted for Christmas. I wanted those who could no longer be there.
This year, it feels that this is what the whole nation wants for Christmas, a few days or even hours with their loved ones, whether they are Tier 1, 2 or 3, locked–down, or whether they are no longer with us at all. We are together in our desire to be with those who are apart from us.
Unfortunately, for many of us, that’s not possible. The hope and joy that we are ‘supposed’ to feel at this time of year seems harder to grasp.
I have been reminded, in this dark year, that it is in the darkest night you see the stars shine most brightly. In the depths of the dark nights, the shepherds and the Magi followed the brightest star. And it was this star that guided them to a new beginning and a new hope.
It may feel superficial in our current world, to look to the brightest star, the true shining light of Christmas – Jesus the new born, the infant, the child. But I believe it is because of the state of the world we must look to Jesus. It is in the coming of Jesus we find a new beginning, a new life, and a renewed hope. Jesus, the brightest star in the darkest night helps us to fix our eyes on the future with an expectant hopefulness that comes with the morning light.
Hannah Waite is a Researcher at Theos
God with us
“No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple–shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine”
This December perhaps feels like a ‘careful what you wish for’ sort of moment. For years, the season has been accompanied by a call to remember the real meaning of Christmas. We’ve all heard those messages easily trotted by earnest preachers, suggesting we might ignore the lure of consumerism, resist all the shiny trappings and remember instead that little baby in the manger.
And yet, here we are in 2020, with little choice but to strip back our celebrations. It is months since I ventured anywhere near a crowded high street and I have missed watching the Christmas lights brighten up the streets around the Theos office in central London. Singing along with carols from the solitude of my bedroom isn’t quite the same as the frosty air of a cold church building, without being swept along by other voices who can carry a tune much better than I can. Enforced or not, this truly is the ‘simpler’ Christmas for which many of us might have longed.
It might be easy to point out glibly that the baby in the manger is one of the few things to have stayed the same in all the turmoil of this year, or that the physical reality of the first Christmas was as messy and imperfect as 2020. But, as John Betjeman reminds us, if it is true that the message of Christmas is of a God who came to be with us, Emmanuel, then nothing else is enough.
Hannah Rich is Senior Researcher at Theos
Keeping Christmas Open
Many of my childhood Christmas memories include being dragged along by my parents to volunteer at Thanet Open Christmas. Open Christmas operates in our local community centre and involves hearty, Christmas–jumper–wearing volunteers cooking up a feast and providing community and friendship for those for whom Christmas would otherwise be a bleak and lonely day.
Picture the chaos of hundreds of people from all walks of life packed into an overheated hall, ‘karaoke carols’ being bawled tunelessly from the front followed by round after round of bingo. Every child has a present (or two) to open, and every person is made to feel welcome and included. I expect the first Christmas had a similar atmosphere. A teenage mum, her new–born, shepherds and wise men rubbing shoulders in a stuffy stable was not the most natural or glamorous of gatherings. And yet this was the seemingly unlikely group God chose to bring together to reveal himself to.
Jesus would have felt very much at home in the joyful messiness of our community centre. But like many things this year Open Christmas won’t be able to run as normal. For most of us Christmas 2020 will be lacking in some respects, but the loss of Open Christmas at a time of year when almost all other essential services are closed will leave a profound hole in the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our community. Finding ways to include everyone in Christmas this year will be more challenging than ever, and will require more creativity – Open Christmas is doing ‘Christmas in a box’ to deliver some of that joy in a hamper to over 90 households. But if Open Christmas proves anything, it is that joy and hope can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
Abbie Allison is Communications and Events Officer at Theos
The theme of royalty, true and false, runs through the nativity scenes in Matthew and Luke’s gospels like writing through a stick of rock.
Both evangelists locate Jesus within a royal genealogy. Both locate their story by dating it “in the time of Herod king of Judea” (reader take note). Joseph is identified as “a descendant of [king] David”, that being the reason for the family’s journey to Bethlehem. The Magi come looking for the “king of the Jews”. The present king, Herod, is perturbed by this news. Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son by saying “God has raised up a horn of salvation for us/ in the house of his servant David.” And the angel tells Mary that God will give her child “the throne of his father David” and that “he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever”, his kingdom having no end. (Luke 1.32–33) You would have to be obtuse beyond measure not to hear what the evangelists are saying. This is a story about royalty and authority.
Tales of which we seem to love. According to Netflix, the new (fourth) series of The Crown was watched in 21 million homes in its first four weeks this autumn, taking the programme’s overall viewing figure to 73 million households since its release in 2016. Sovereignty fascinates.
One of the many reasons for The Crown‘s success is the breadth of its appeal. Conservatives like it because it immerses them in a world of tradition, obligation and ceremony. Liberals like it because it shows how, behind the dignified façade, there is something altogether more human, fragile and troubled going on. And feminists like it because pretty much every important, interesting and strong character is female.
Perhaps that’s the success of any good royal story. The one in Matthew and Luke reeks with history. Tradition, prophecy and the past crowd the stage. Zechariah belongs to the ancient priestly division of Abijah in the Temple. Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron. The words of the prophets – Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Hosea – structure the script the characters play. The genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3 string the event into a chain that disappears in deep history. The present only makes sense in the light of the past.
But that past is then subverted. The official king of Israel turns out to be the usurper; the refugee child wears the true crown. The royal court is corrupt; the real royal family forced to flee. It is outsiders – foreign magicians and Temple hangers–on – who see most clearly what’s really going on. And, of course, the new king’s reign turns out to be very different from what anyone expected, as Simeon’s prophecy intimates.
And the lead character is a woman. Indeed, with Elizabeth and the aged prophet Anna, three leading characters are (admirable) women. Elizabeth recognises God’s favour (as against her husband who questions it) and insists on her son’s name. The octogenarian, ever–worshipping Anna, arrives just as Simeon is delivering his soul–piercing prophecy and reassures everyone the child will be responsible for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” And Mary, magnificent in her courage, faithfulness and ‘magnificat’, steals the show and steels herself for the future.
We should not, of course, push comparisons between the series and the scriptures too far. After all, the ancient Israelites probably didn’t slaughter quite as many animals as the English upper class, and what modern crowd would go berserk chanting their praise for the great Artemis?
But themes do resonate, nonetheless. Structures of authority and the exercise of power are ineradicably built into the creation, but both invariably rub up against the frailty and fallibility of humans who try to exercise them. Human history, then as now, is one big long quest to work out who should be in charge, and why.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos and hosts the Reading Our Times podcast
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