“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath…"I am as light as a feather. I am as happy as an angel. I am as merry as a schoolboy! I am as giddy as a drunken man! A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” - Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” 1843.
As a very lapsed Jew I have no particular affinity with the icons of Christmas. Though I am able to get a little weepy at the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge, I do not share the sense of empathy with the world that possessed his reformed spirit. The Christmas tree topped by the obligatory angel moves me not at all. As a child, the plastic tree in our religiously confused household arrived regularly on Christmas Eve from the window of the dress shop in which my mother worked. It bore the winking legend “A Merry Christmas to All Our Customers”.
Illustration by John Leech, 1843, a public domain image
I have some happy, if bizarre, memories of the Christmases of my childhood. In particular, I recall Christmas Eve of 1958 when my father, charged with bringing home the turkey, was diverted en route by several pals who wanted to celebrate the festivities with a drink or two. Those encounters became prolonged and my father returned very late, somewhat bewildered, with only the head and neck of the unfortunate bird. Somewhere along the way, in some drinking den, the body had become fatally detached and inadvertently abandoned (or, we speculated, the bird had made a posthumous bid for freedom). The loss of Christmas dinner was well worth the entertainment occasioned by mother’s lively diatribe that followed this mishap.
The myth of Santa Claus had (and has) a magical resonance. It represents an annual reiteration of kindness and goodwill which does no harm in a world where those values are in short supply. The idea of a jolly fat man bearing gifts is certainly neither threatening nor disturbing. There are many worse visitors in our midst. I also do not swell with emotion at the sight of Christmas lights but, as a general principle, light is better than darkness.
Illustration: 1850 illustration of Saint Nicolas with his servant Père Fouettard Zwarte Piet, public domain
The nativity carries more significance both politically and poetically. It subverts the traditional association of status with wealth and teaches that spiritual meaning is not dependent on opulence of environment. God (if He or She exists) resides amongst the poor and dispossessed. The Magi (be they wise men or Kings) follow a star and kneel before a homeless child born in abject poverty. The carol “Once in Royal David's City”, written in 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander, expresses precisely the profound power of the paradox in which spirituality is found in the darkest of places, illuminated by the light of grace:
Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
This contains a radical message that is consistent with the proposition that Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount when he proclaimed that most radical reform of consciousness: “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Luke makes a similar point by disconnecting holiness from both comfort and wealth: “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (King James Version). The story invests poverty with grace; innocence with power; simplicity with meaning.
Painting: Nativity scene by Botticelli, public domain
The birth of Jesus is, at a secular level, a moral parable that challenges the definition of worth. It signifies that luxury is not a necessary environment for spiritual authority and that there is a power greater than that to be found in gold. The political implications of the Christmas story (whether you believe in the religious dimension or not) disturb conventional narratives by redefining the nature of success and by reimagining hope. The heart of the Christian story undermines the importance of possessions while, paradoxically, it is celebrated by a festival marked by consumption and acquisition.
The icons of Christmas, nevertheless, carry some implicit and important meanings that lurk beneath the crass commercialism expressed in the high streets and shopping malls of our cities. It is commonplace and reasonable to bemoan the heaving crowds that with some justification are cited as corrupted distortions of the Christmas message. Spiritual and political radicalism persists, however, within the fabric of the story of the birth of Christ.
Photo: Shopping at Christmastime, public domain image
The biggest threat to the importance of this festival is not in the annual frenzy of indulgence. It is in limp acquiescence to the perceived imperatives of political correctness. A destructive fallacy is that in the multi-cultural, diverse locations wherein we teach and live we ought to repress and modify the symbols of Christmas so as to respect the values of others. Taking Christ and tradition out of Christmas is an act of vandalism and a philistine disregard for the history, poetry and symbolism of a birth that, whether you believe it or not, profoundly shaped civilization for over 2,000 years. If all religious meaning is stripped from Christmas what is left is glitter and baubles. Without the religious narrative the political and social dimensions are obscured and made trivial by empty commercialism. What remains is an illusion of uniformity.
Respect for diversity is not expressed by repressing religious meaning or hiding the implications of rituals associated with festivities. Christmas stories operate at several levels: as expressions of faith and as doorways to understanding other realities. In our multi-religious environments, we should teach our students to understand, celebrate and respect the meanings embedded in Eid, Chanukah, Diwali and all the other festivals that coexist in the places where we live and study. The alternative is to reduce the bright colors of distinction to a pallid grey. The curse of political correctness impoverishes the world in which we live and sustains an illusion that religion is a minimal factor in the definition of national and trans-national identities.
Photo: Boy in front of a menorah via PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project
Teaching diversity does not mean divesting religious festivals and holy days (holi-days) of their religious meanings. Indeed, understanding the rich complexities of our environments imposes an obligation to teach the systems of belief beyond the mistletoe. There are profound meanings contained within the festive rituals and as educators our obligation is to reveal not repress these out of some misplaced fear that we may offend the sensibilities of the over sensitive. There is never a case for ignorance over knowledge; there is never a case to allow timidity to distort analysis. At this time of the year the temptation is to allow anodyne concealments to prevail. Instead, we would do better to look with Ebenezer Scrooge at the spirit of Christmas revealed. In his 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol”, Charles Dickens takes Scrooge from alienation to empathy, from isolation to fellowship: a profound affirmation of the power of Christmas:
It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
And so, Merry Christmas and God bless us all. Every one.