Members of the Theos team reflect on what Christmas means to them in 2021. 13/12/2021
The word ‘story’ carries with it the connotation of something made–up, or not real. Something false, possibly.
But even in the world of theatre, particularly in the times we live now, ‘story’ is seen as something more, often more revelatory – a tool that reveals us to ourselves. And more importantly, reveals others to us. An act of imagination doesn’t have to mean a leap into pretence; moreover it can move us into a position of empathy.
The Christmas Story will mean different things to different people; it is a foundation of faith and real for many; more allegorical for others. Whatever it is for you, it’s dramatic and powerful. I’m reminded of Tolstoy talking about the essence of drama, in this case his novel Anna Karenina, as the territory where no one person possesses the truth but all have the right to be understood.
Once upon a time, a baby named Jesus was born in a barn. This scene is currently being replicated across hundreds of school Nativity Plays which Frank Cottrell Boyce in a recent lecture called ‘celebrations of imperfection’. The birth attracted a number of different onlookers from varying backgrounds, all expecting something probably quite other, than what they saw – ‘is this real?’ they might have thought. A few years later as a young man when Jesus is on trial, he is asked by Pontius Pilate ‘what is truth?’ Jesus doesn’t answer. The answer lies in the territory of the story of our lives, in our diversity, frailty, shared uncertainties – and how we live them out.
In that classic Bowie and Crosby partnership of Christmas 1977, Bowie’s understated accompanying lyrics invite us to share in the situation of this birth, and apply it to all our lives: what does it mean to be really aware of and care for, another human being, and walk in their shoes. Through that, we learn what is real and what is truthful.
‘That Story’ teaches us how to live and love – within a battered old barn and the shadow of a merciless Cross, we have the opportunity to care, and be understood.
Anna Wheeler is Operations and Events Manager at Theos
Finding the good in Christmas
On Christmas Eve 1951, the clergy of Dijon burnt an effigy of Santa Claus in front of their cathedral. It wasn’t the only time Father Christmas has been lynched. A similar thing happened in front of Rennes Cathedral. One Dutch pastor had a custom of hanging Santa by the neck each year because he was a demon.
Complaints about Christmas are as old as Christmas. Church Fathers bemoaned that it was basically a pagan festival. Serious–minded clergy have lambasted it for being, in William Prynne’s words, little more than “reveling, epicurisme, wantonnesse, idlenesse, dancing, [and] drinking”. In 1647, the English Puritan parliament famously banned it altogether.
It’s not just Christians who have had a problem with Christmas, however. French Revolutionaries banned it (to no avail: Midnight Mass was back within a decade). Lenin instructed his secret police to shoot anyone who did not turn up for work as normal on 25 December. American secularists seem to believe that nativity scenes on government property will tear up the Constitution (to quote Marge Simpson: “so much evil the world”). One psychiatrist even claimed that if children are allowed to believe in Santa their thinking ability will be “permanently impaired if not destroyed”. (All these examples and more are from Gerry Bowler’s entertaining book Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday)
And yet the festival persists, in all its shape–shifting, vaguely spiritual, gaudy, hopeful, covid–dodging excess, far more a mark of our deep need for rest, relationship, light and leisure in a dark and difficult moment of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) than of any particular doctrinal urgings.
The pure have and will demand its annulment, or at least its reformation, for fear it brings out the beast in us. The decadent have and will decry the annual attempts to weave a moral message of love, vulnerability, hospitality, and hope into its kitschy fabric. They both have a point.
In his admirably sincere and sane guidance for parsons, A Priest to the Temple, George Herbert advised “The country parson is a lover of old customs if they be good… because country people are much addicted to them.” It’s good advice. Find the good in Christmas, and then love it.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos
The summer of the soul in December
What is Christmas? At its core, with everything else stripped away, it is the birth of Christ, the beginning of our Saviour’s time on Earth, the miraculous moment that a child is born to a virgin without sin.
But given how widely it is celebrated, and by so many secular people, and indeed people of faiths other than Christianity, it’s clearly not just about that. There is another story.
In a somewhat curmudgeonly essay, CS Lewis once argued that in fact, there are three Christmases. The first: the religious one, the second: the jolly one, and the third: the economic one. He detested the third, and was ambivalent about the second. But the second is, by far, the de facto Christmas. Most people celebrate Christmas in a way that is, at least, some way ‘secular’ – even those who are religious. (This is broadly unsurprising – there’s nothing biblical about turkey, or pigs in blankets, but I’m going to eat them anyway.) Indeed, the poet Roger McGough, in his poem ‘Alternative Santa’, lumps together the giving of gifts and Santa Claus in with “midnight mass and mistletoe, Christmas carols and candle glow”.
This cultural Christmas trades on nostalgia, as my colleague Paul Bickley wrote last year. But I don’t think it’s true nostalgia, a pathology that shares a good deal with Freud’s understanding of ‘melancholia’. Instead, it is suffused with something quite different – hope.
The Dominican writer Herbert McCabe once wrote that “the business of the Church… is to ‘remember’ the future. Not merely to remember that there is to be a future, but mysteriously to make the future really present.” Of course, for Christians, Christ’s birth represents a point where that future becomes present, a moment in which eternity breaks into time.
Yet as we look around in December, and consider the cultural background radiation of Christmas, we also see a vision of how we could be going forward. Charitable giving goes up. We gather with friends, make time to socialise (at a time where doing so is harder than ever, and we are lonelier than ever). We recognise our humanity in new ways, with a focus on gift – not merely the exchanging of presents, but rather a recognition of the one’s self in the other, and the renewal of reciprocal bonds and social obligations.
So this year, I hope we embrace it for what it is. Christmas, even in its odd, shapeshifting modern form, is a clarion call to love, to hope – a shining beacon in the bleak midwinter. It is not for nothing that a line I return to throughout the festive period is not Christian at all, but rather from the great secular moral philosophers The Muppets: “It is the summer of the soul in December.” Their challenge, to Scrooge and to us, is to “make it last all year.”
Pete Whitehead is Research, Events and Communications Assistant at Theos
The economics of Christmas
At the end of his book, Money and Power, the French social critic Jacques Ellul offers a poignant meditation on what we might call the economics of Christmas. In a context of widening inequality, amplified by Covid and the frenzied chase of technological ‘progress’, Ellul’s reflections on the shepherds and the magi in the birth narrative contain the seeds of a possible solution to relationships–destroying inequality (for a detailed argument about how theology can help tackle excessive inequality, see our latest report here).
In Luke’s account, it is the shepherds who receive the news of Jesus’ birth first. Not the “magician–kings”. Poorest of the poor, looking after other people’s property, the shepherds are also first to see Jesus. This is significant. In the divine order of things (what Christians refer to as “the Kingdom of God”), the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Matthew 20:16). God announces his arrival first to the big issue vendors and benefits claimants, to those lacking the buffers and cushions to soften life’s blows. Here is the God of the poor.
But the story of Jesus’ birth is not a Marxist tale of proletariat bias. The wisemen followed – albeit having travelled a long distance, crossing the “deserts of the vanity of riches, of money, of power”, as Ellul put is. For “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.… But with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:24, 26.
The invitation to receive the heavenly Gift is issued to rich and poor alike. To each in their own language. To the shepherds, in their poverty and simplicity. To the magi, in their science and sophistication.
To comprehend the ultimate Signifier, the Magi follow the intricate signage of the stars. To meet the Good Shepherd, the shepherds piece together the clues that fit their occupation – a baby surrounded by animals, laid in a manger.
The magi bring gold – their wealth; incense – their political power; myrrh – their scientific prowess. All the things wrapped up with their identity.
The shepherds bring only themselves. And that is enough. Having encountered the Gift, they leave rejoicing: “Good news to the poor” indeed (Luke 4:18).
Although they arrived separately, possibly a couple of years apart, and in different places, the shepherd poor and rich wisemen are cheek by jowl in nativity scenes. A heart–warming yet implausible picture of ‘equality and inclusion’. But the two belong together indeed, the Christmas story insists. For rich and poor are equally given the revelation that at the heart of reality, in the middle of the manger, is Gift itself. The basis of togetherness, of relationships healed, is then the full–self recognition that all are recipients of God’s many gifts, supremely the Gift of God’s own self.
Natan Mladin is a Senior Researcher at Theos
Nothing is Let Go
“I know there’s been pain this year, but it’s time to let it go Next year, you never know But for now, Merry Christmas…”
That’s according to Elton John and Ed Sheeran in their hotly anticipated 2021 Christmas collaboration, offering a view of the festive season framed by warm fires, dancing in the kitchen, and a place “where we all belong”. It is a familiar image, as we are bombarded with messages telling us that Christmas is the time to put the pain on hold. We may pick up that pain again in the New Year, but for now, Merry Christmas: “it’s time to let it go”.
I am not cynical about the need for collective catharsis – not least given the last two years – but this seems a sadly diminished view of the Christmas spirit.
It’s not that we shouldn’t be happy. On the contrary, the nativity is full of unsurpassable joy (for example, here, and here, and here). It is the story of a happy arrival – even the suspension of normal times – and with it, the fulfilment of divine promise. But nothing is let go. Painful realities are not placed on hold. Instead, God enters the world precisely where it is hurting, tends closely to our pain, and reveals himself to us joyfully through it.
Christ’s conception brings a reputational crisis for both his parents; his mother is afraid; there is no room for him at birth (hardly a place of “belonging”); he spends his early years as a refugee. The world is uninviting – but divine work pervades everything. As the angels offer Mary reassurance not to be afraid, we hear that this powerless and unexpected baby has a special significance: they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. Later, we meet him as an adult, calming the storm and calling by name those whom society has abandoned. This is a story of transformation, not escapism.
My own thoughts linger on the shepherds. What must their lives have been like in the thirty years between the nativity and the start of Christ’s public ministry? At first, they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen”. But three decades is a long time. I assume they had bad days. I imagine they sometimes got angry with the people they loved. Perhaps their lives contained great suffering. But perhaps, also, they returned to that precious night thirty years ago in the stillness of their hearts, treasuring and pondering its significance as Mary did, and drawing sustenance from it even when God felt furthest away. Might this have inspired in them something that would otherwise have been left undiscovered? I wonder, finally, how they must have reacted to the news of a great teacher from Galilee, preaching the Kingdom of God, and baptising with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
This is how I look forward to Christmas. There is no denying that the world remains a bleak place for too many people, even as it contains significant happiness and wonder. So too, I would venture that most Christians really feel the truly unbounded joy of the Gospel only in fleeting moments and rare glimpses. Yet again, nothing is let go. Quite the opposite: the hope that comes from such sustaining moments is what powers so much Christian social action, as the Church works to alleviate pain precisely where it is felt most starkly. In the words of Henri Nouwen, then, “The words about God’s coming not only remind us that God will appear, but also he will slowly transform our whole being into expectation, then all we are has become ‘waiting’.” For now, Merry Christmas.
Madeleine Pennington is Head of Research at Theos
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