The Christmas Story

 Bible, Ritual  Comments Off on The Christmas Story
Dec 272015


On occasion there’s some overlap between this blog and my other one,, because in that one I sometimes deal with Biblical events and festivals, and, therefore, get a chance to expound  my views on the Bible. Today’s on St John is here:

I have also had the opportunity to talk there about the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel where he talks about Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus:

These narratives form the spine of the Christmas story.

To begin I will say flat out that I do not believe a word of Luke’s story. On the bald face of it, it is clearly fiction. The idea of an empire-wide census decreed by Augustus whereby everyone had to travel to their patrilineal home town to be counted for tax purposes is an absurdity on all kinds of levels, not to mention that it is not recorded in any other classical sources. This just simply could not have happened without destroying or seriously disrupting the economy of the empire. Furthermore, troops garrisoned across the empire would have had to return home, leaving vast territories without patrols. Such a notion is ludicrous.

Luke’s narrative is clearly an attempt to square what was known about the life of Jesus with Hebrew prophesy about the messiah. Micah 5:2 says

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

Yet is was clear from everything anyone knew about Jesus that he came from Galilee at the other end of the country. Micah was suggesting that the new ruler (the messiah) would be born in the Davidic line, as was politically expected, hence born in Bethlehem. When this did not mesh with surface fact, Luke gave an “explanation.”

Likewise Isaiah 7:14 says (in English):

The virgin shall be with child
and shall bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanu-El.

In the Greek Septuagint, which would have been used by Hellenized Jews and probably Luke, the word for “virgin” is “parthenos” which means “virgin” expressly. But in the Hebrew text the word used is “almah” which is quite uncommon, but clearly means “young woman” or “unmarried woman,” and only means “virgin” by extension – much as “maiden” in English can mean “young woman” or “virgin.” (It’s always bothered me that “maiden name” literally means “virgin name.”) The woman prophesied to be the mother of the messiah in Isaiah would be a young woman, not necessarily a virgin. But Luke, in his misreading of Isaiah, inserts a story about the virgin birth, also to mesh with what he sees as legitimate prophesy.

The gospels are riddled with tales designed to “fulfill prophesy,” and in many cases the prophesy Jesus was supposedly fulfilling was simply a false reading of the originals. Does this mean we should reject the tales? Historically, of course. But we need not reject them spiritually. We should, also, reject all efforts to date Jesus’ birth using Luke’s “evidence.” This is often attempted using the chronology Luke gives in chapter 1 where he gives the month of conception of John the Baptist and links the timing of this pregnancy to Mary’s via the story of the Visitation of Mary (go to my link above for a fuller analysis).

The origin of the precise dating of Christmas as 25th December is unclear. That it was an attempt by the early Catholic church to usurp pagan Roman midwinter festivals has been thoroughly debunked. By the 3rd century the 25th of December was preferred, but other dates were, and still are, used. In early Christianity Christmas was of small importance, especially in relation to the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. The Koine Greek “epiphaneia” derives from the verb “to appear” and means “manifestation”, “appearance.” So the day was more important than the day of Jesus’ birth because it was the day when his true nature was made manifest to the world (as symbolized by the Magi).

Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican and Lutheran churches, continued to celebrate Christmas. However, in 17th century England, some groups, notably the Puritans, strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.” In contrast, the established Anglican Church urged increased observance of feasts, penitential seasons, and saints’ days. Calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party. The Catholic Church also responded, promoting the festival in a more religiously oriented form. King Charles I directed his nobles and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter to keep up their old-style Christmas generosity. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.

Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652), argued against the Puritans, and makes note of Old English Christmas traditions: dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with “plow-boys” and “maidservants”, old Father Christmas and carol singing.

The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many Calvinist clergy still disapproved of Christmas celebration. As such, in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the observance of Christmas, and though James VI commanded its celebration in 1618, attendance at church was scant. The Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, claiming that the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days”. It was not until 1958 that Christmas again became a Scottish public holiday.

In Colonial North America, the Puritans of New England shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban by the Pilgrims was revoked in 1681 by English governor Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.

At the same time, Christian residents of Virginia and New York observed the holiday freely. Pennsylvania German Settlers, pre-eminently the Moravian settlers of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz in Pennsylvania and the Wachovia Settlements in North Carolina, were enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas. The Moravians in Bethlehem had the first Christmas trees in America as well as the first Nativity Scenes. Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom. George Washington attacked Hessian (German) mercenaries on the day after Christmas during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, Christmas being much more popular in Germany than in North America at this time.

In the early 19th century, writers imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to help revive the “spirit of Christmas” and seasonal merriment. Its instant popularity played a major role in portraying Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion. Jesus is in there but in a very minor role.

Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Superimposing his humanitarian vision of the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.

So . . .should we celebrate or not, and how? My previous post shows what I do. I don’t give a hoot about historical fact, theological ideology, or liturgical habits. I do, however, care about tradition and meaning. Culture is all about habit and custom, from which we derive meaning. Christmas for me will always be about love, kindness, generosity and peace. Sure, those values should be present all year, but there’s no reason not to give them a boost once in a while.

To be continued . . .

Unpacking Christmas

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Dec 272015


Today is the day after Christmas, called Boxing Day in England and some linguistic version of St Stephen’s Day in other parts of Europe. On this day I hear people constantly saying “I’m so glad it’s over for another year.” I do not feel that way for many reasons. First, Christmas is not over for me, and, second, Christmas is not a monolithic “it,” but a season full of numerous special parts which I celebrate in turn. Christmas for many people, especially those with little or no religious feeling, is ONE DAY of overindulgence planned for, literally, months and involving an orgy of spending and consumption.

When I used to live in New York I was always overwhelmed by the barrage of Christmas images and music in stores and offices with reindeer and wise men and angels and candy canes etc. all tumbling over one another to the sounds of Bing Crosby, Hark the Herald Angels, or whatever, not to mention tinsel, trees, wrapping paper and other gaudy paraphernalia. I hate it, and always have.

I’ve celebrated Christmas in many cultures over the years, each with their own customs and traditions. Some I like. In Argentina things are rather low key with few decorations or fanfare, few presents, and just a festive meal late on Christmas Eve and spilling into Christmas Day. China is completely laughable in its attempted importation of Christmas consumption to swell profits, to little effect as far as I can tell. Mantua, where I live now, seems to be festive, but not overplayed. I don’t care what’s going on around me from calm to mayhem. I pursue my own course annually by what I call “unpacking” Christmas – taking the jumble of images and pulling it apart thread by thread.

To start, I see Christmas as a season, not a day, that lasts from the 1st Sunday in Advent, usually in late November, to Epiphany on 6th January. This season has a contour: slow build up to Christmas Day itself, followed by a gentle wind down. All told it’s about 6 weeks with the focus constantly shifting. Advent is a time of preparation, just as Lent is for Easter. As such I like to give it its due and not just go hurtling towards the big finale.

Advent has four Sundays in it, each with a theme – hope, love, peace, and joy. It is a longstanding tradition in some churches and homes to make an Advent wreath of candles (as pictured above). I make one every year and have done so most of my adult life. The wreath is made of three purple and one pink candle in a circle with a white candle in the middle. The colored candles represent the four Sundays of Advent (which have different meanings in different traditions). First Sunday in Advent you light one purple candle, the candle of hope. It’s a very small light, and a very small gesture, because it’s just the beginning. It’s a time to contemplate hope, which is small, but grows. Next Sunday you light the first candle and then the second, the candle of joy. Third Sunday you light the first two, then the third, the pink one, symbolizing peace – sometimes called gaudete Sunday. Fourth Sunday you light all four and celebrate joy. Then on Christmas Eve you light all four again, and then light the white candle, the Christ candle, at midnight to signify the birth of Jesus. That’s one way to build up to the big event.

In Advent there are also several significant liturgical days. The two most important for me are St Nicholas (6 Dec.) and St Lucy or Santa Lucia (13 Dec.). St Nicholas is associated in legend with great generosity, and was, at one time, a day for giving presents to children – now superseded by Christmas Day. His full legend is worth reading. Saint Lucy’s Day is celebrated mostly in Scandinavia, but also in parts of Italy. It’s a big day in Mantua because she is a patron of the city. Under the Julian calendar, 13th December was the solstice, and so was a time of light. The day is still celebrated with candles in one way or another. In Sweden, for example, traditionally the eldest daughter of the household wears a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles, and wakes the rest of the house bearing a dish of saffron buns.

Christmas Eve has always been my favorite day in the season, as is the eve of every significant date (including my birthday). It’s the very last moment of anticipation. When I was a pastor I held a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, and it was always very moving. The sight of an entire congregation holding candles, bathing the sanctuary in their light, never failed to impress me.

Until my wife died and my son moved away, Christmas Day itself was just for family. When my son was little, the presents occupied the early morning, of course, but the rest of the day I devoted to cooking. Because I love cooking, this was a special time. I did various preparations throughout Advent such as making mincemeat early to mature for several weeks, and a Christmas pudding to be set aside in a bath of brandy for one year. Some years I made a gingerbread “house” in the week before Christmas – one year it was a castle replete with knights on horseback. On Christmas Day after the presents, first task was setting last year’s pudding to steam. When I first made it, it steamed for about 8 hours, and the same again on Christmas Day.

Then there was eggnog to make according to my wife’s family recipe, mince pies, sausage rolls, and the centerpiece, a goose. Naturally the goose had to have an army of side dishes – stuffing, red cabbage, roast vegetables and other trimmings – all of which I merrily prepared (keeping a list on the refrigerator to make sure I didn’t forget anything at serving time). The crowning moment was dimming all the lights and bringing in the pudding, flaming with lit brandy. Very special.

Boxing Day, today, followed. In England traditionally this was a day off for the servants who had to work on Christmas Day, as did the postal service, shopkeepers, bakers, and so forth. It still is a day for holiday activities including sporting events, and on this day workers received their Christmas boxes (hence the name), bonus gifts for their year of service. I always had a big dinner on Boxing Day for my sister and her family, plus whoever else I cared to invite. It was always a major production.

The season leading to Epiphany also has some significant days, such as St John, Holy Innocents, and New Year’s, all with their own particular importance. Then comes Twelfth Night and Epiphany. Twelfth Night is 5th January, the last of the 12 days of Christmas, and at one time marked the end of the Christmas season. It was time for a party featuring a special Twelfth cake and favorite games. This has now been superseded by Epiphany which marks the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Magi. When I was a boy in Argentina this was the occasion to put your shoes by the window the night before, along with water and some straw for the camels. In the morning they would be filled with candy.

Epiphany is the final act of the Christmas season. When I play out the season in this manner I don’t have that flash in the pan moment on one day, followed by exhaustion. Rather, I feel renewed and revived to face the challenges of a new year.

I wish my readers a joyous Christmas season and a Happy New Year.

A Good Guy With A Gun (1)

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Dec 052015


Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) famously said at a press conference in Washington: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” There’s an awful lot wrong with that statement which I will dissect in a minute. But first I want to say that it seems clear to me that this is a slogan invented by someone writing advertising copy, and not LaPierre’s own words originally. It seems perfect as a catchy phrase for someone selling guns. You can read it as “buy my product – IT WORKS !!” Obviously the NRA is heavily funded by weapons manufacturers and so the slogan makes sense as an advertisement for guns. I hope most of us are aware that we need to be cautious about accepting advertising copy at face value. If an advertiser said, “my product is the ONLY way to prevent tooth decay,” we would be rightly skeptical.

So, without other analysis of LaPierre’s statement, the word “only” is troubling. It’s pure advertising hype to buy the product rather than seek other paths. Wouldn’t wearing bullet-proof vests work? Or tasers? Pepper spray? Flash bombs? Mortars? Obviously I’m being a little far fetched, but the point is that there are multiple ways to stop “a bad guy with a gun,” and history has shown that. You can tackle him, for example. But such alternatives aren’t going to profit people in the business of selling guns.

The slogan is clearly an effective one, as a lot of advertising is. It is memorable, short, and gets the advertiser’s message across clearly and succinctly. I still remember “put a tiger in your tank.” That slogan makes no sense when taken at face value. It’s just hype. The image is nonsensical, but it worked, because it was simple, powerful, and captured people’s imaginations. Esso (now Exxon) used it in all manner of ways for years. It got people excited and boosted sales for Esso/Exxon. But, was their petrol any better than their competitors’? I have no idea. That’s not the point of the image. It was a bold, simple idea that grabbed people and enticed them to buy the petrol without thinking much further. So it is with the image of a “good guy with a gun.” It stirs up macho images of John Wayne and the like, and not much else.  But we are thinking people. Let’s take apart the “logic” of LaPierre’s statement piece by piece.

Let’s start with the notion of “good” guys and “bad” guys. This in itself is a childishly simplistic notion that many people want to cling to because black-and-white dichotomies are easier to understand than nuanced reasoning. For decades Hollywood has pumped out movies in which “the good guy” (in old Westerns identified by the white hat) defeats “the bad guy” (black hat). Maybe that’s all right for entertainment, but it is far from being a useful summation of life as we live it. Movies have resolutions and endings; daily life does not. We must not confuse the distillation of complex problems down to a few basic issues in a story plot with the actual world we live in. Problems we face don’t disappear because “the bad guy” has been shot. Things are more complex than that.

When a “good guy” does a “bad thing” people get confused, because they don’t understand the inherent complexity of social, cultural, and psychological reality. When I was a university professor, an auditor (that is, retired person looking for “enrichment’) once asked me in class the age-old chestnut, “why do bad things happen to good people?” He and my regular students must have caught my sigh and eye rolling. Boiling down complex issues to simple generalities doesn’t work. We have to stop talking about cardboard cutout “good guys” and “bad guys” as general categories, and start looking at real people and real situations. Real people are sometimes generous, sometimes mean; sometimes caring sometimes indifferent; sometimes loving, sometimes angry. Is LaPierre a good guy or a bad guy? It’s a meaningless question; neither answer makes any sense. Yes, he spouts hateful rhetoric, but I presume (I have no information either way) that he is a decent citizen and friend to many. Do these things make him a good guy or a bad guy? I’m inclined to believe that he is corrupt, but I also imagine that he believes the stupid things he says – at some level. At best (or worst), therefore, I would call him misguided. I might also brand him as a convenient puppet of the arms manufacturers. I’m going to do all I can in my power to blunt his dangerous rhetoric, but I am not going to simply dump him into the bad guy bin with all the other bad guys.

People have been drawing false and simplistic dichotomies for millennia because handling complex problems is very difficult, and most people have trouble coping with them. You see this at election time. In many Western democracies there are 2 major parties, so that the electorate is forced into choosing one “side” or the other. For a good chunk of people this does not present a problem because they always vote for one “side.” But there’s always a bunch in the middle who could vote one way or the other. It would be convenient if one “side” wore white hats, and the other black ones. In the U.S. they wear blue and red. They do that in the U.K. too although the political affiliations are opposite (blue for right wing, red for left wing). But undecided voters get confused because they often can’t see their voting choice as a black-and-white (or blue-and-red) issue. Undecideds are in favor of some things about each candidate, but also dislike some things about them. Many undecided voters forced into a simple choice of this one versus that one, when they can see that the issues are complex, simply stay at home on election day. In truth, we shouldn’t have to be picking sides. We should see that the world’s problems are complex, and require complex, multi-faceted solutions. Gun violence is a complex problem.

But even taking the hopelessly simplistic stance that every shooting scenario starts out with a bad guy killing people, we still end up with complexities. Is a good guy coming along to the fray with a gun the answer? LaPierre’s slogan reduces the situation to a problem in physics. In classic physics, you stop one force by using an equal and opposite force. If a car is careening out of control in one direction, it can be stopped by an EQUAL force acting in the OPPOSITE direction. Isaac Newton tells us that. But what is the result? If the forces are large enough, the result is a lot of damage to the “good” force and the “bad” force, because forces don’t magically dissipate just because a moving object has been stopped. Those forces wreak havoc when objects collide. A good guy with a gun facing a bad guy with a gun are going to cause a lot of damage. But even that outcome, which is bad enough, relies on a very simple, but easily grasped, model of physics. Human situations are not like that.

Simple moving objects don’t bring their brains to the party, but humans do, and that really complicates things. Imagine you are a “good guy” with a gun encountering a shooting situation. How do you identify the “bad guy”? It’ll be sheer dumb luck if he’s wearing a black hat saying “bad guy,” and wearing a shirt with a target on it. He could be wearing camouflage, or a flak jacket, and bulletproof vest, looking like a cop. Maybe by chance an undercover agent dressed as a homeless man has heard the gunshots and is now firing back. You’ve just arrived. Which one do you shoot at? I know that if I were the undercover cop I’d be praying that “a good guy with a gun” does NOT show up, otherwise I’m dead – especially if my skin is not lily white. People in critical situations, where there is no time to meditate, do not fall back on “instinct” or “human nature” (which are convenient fictions). They fall back on their upbringing and training. Having an untrained person with a gun in a critical situation is worse than having no one at all.

There’s more I could say, but that’s the meat of my argument for the moment. Complex social issues are not solved by simple slogans. Anyone who tells you there is only ONE solution to a problem, and the solution is SIMPLE, is wrong. Even physics, mathematics, and logic tell us there are INFINITE answers to problems, whether the problems are simple or complex. Simple answers are for simple minds. Be better than that.

To be continued . . .