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Understanding Christmas


THE wonderful Christmas Gospel tells us that God became flesh. So Christmas is not a theory – it is not even a doctrine or a dogma – it is an event in the real world of things. Ask a child about Christmas and she’ll have the honesty to say it’s about presents. Things, you see. When God became flesh, He did something that has immense practical usefulness. The English used to be thought of as a practical people – not like the intellectual French, their heads full of theories.

There is a true story about when the French magazine Paris Match asked three important men who happened to be in Paris atthe same time what they would like for Christmas. Vladimir Putin said he would like an end to the arms race; Barack Obama said he wanted peace on earth; the British Ambassador refused to answer the question. The journalist said, ‘But the Presidents of America and Russia have told me what they would like for Christmas.’ The British Ambassador said, ‘Oh, all right – I’d like a small box of crystallised fruits, please.’ He was right. Not only was his request more modest: it was the only one of the three that might possibly be supplied.

So when you ponder the wonder of Christmas, don’t let your mind stray into abstractions – the so-called meaning of Christmas. Think instead of the things we associate with Christmas and you will get a better understanding of the festival. I have a friend, a priest, who phoned to tell me about a pleasing expedition he had made into Spain recently. He said, ‘The whole town square was taken over by crib-sellers. Large cribs, big as your car; small ones to put on the sideboard. Lovely, tangible, evocative, Christmassy.’

To get to the reality of Christmas, don’t remove yourself into some distant position from where you enjoy high-minded spiritual reflections. Enter into the world of Christmas things. The child understands this. That’s why we say Christmas is a time for children. Set up a game with a child and he won’t ask you for meanings: he’ll enter its worldand regard it as reality. Tell the nativity story to young children and they don’t start asking whether it’s true: they’re far too busy dressing up as Mary and Joseph, sticking a paper star on a velvet curtain and making models of the lowing cattle. They are nearer to Christmas than the theologians.

You can give children religion neat. They can take it. It’s the adults who are sceptical and squeamish. The child, first presented with the story of the Nativity of Our Lord, has an acceptance of it which is stronger and more immediate than any adult experience. It’s the child who takes religion directly, seriously. It’s the adult who is detached and flippant. The poor grown up thinks about it. The child enters a world. The adult wants to understand – as if the Incarnation were on a par with the binomial theorem. The child allows himself to be imaginatively possessed by it. You must become as a little child.

I grew up in the back streets of Leeds just after the war. My granddad had two newsagents’ shops between the gas works and the jail, about a quarter of a mile apart. Christmas Eve was the busiest time, selling toys. In the bleak midwinter of 1947 – Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps and snow piled high for months on end – I was five and given the Christmas Eve job of carrying messages between the two shops. I still can’t get the magic of it out of my head. Walking down the middle of the deserted Oak Road. Pinpricks of frost on the gravel like a reflection of the starry night. I had a red scarf and I used to be told off for sucking the end of it. I had a paper bag of cocoa and sugar – replenished after each trip. As I walked through the darkness among the lighted windows, I heard in my head the whole time Hark the Herald Angels Sing. I knew then that I was caught in the jaws of the Hound of Heaven.

If Christmas were only the spirit of childhood, that would be a poor thing. But there is a real Child at the centre of it. He grows up. The Christmas tree becomes the cross of Calvary. The myrrh at the manger is ointment for his embalming. The shepherds pay homage to the child who will become the Good Shepherd. The Kings bring gifts to the One who shall be the King in Judgement in the last day. Then there is his mother who cradles him in her arms in the stable as she will hold him at the taking down from the cross. This is what Dorothy Parker has to say about her:

The things she knew, let her forget again –

          The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,

          The gaping shepherds and the strange old men

          Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

          Let her have laughter with her little one:

          Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing;

          Grant her the right to whisper to her son

          The foolish names one dare not call a King.

          Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,

          The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,

          The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud

          That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

          Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go

          And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan

          The proud and happy years that they shall know

          Together, when her son is grown a man.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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