Tag: christmas

Santa Claus and other Christmas myths

Contrary to what some parents believe, their children will not be traumatised to discover that Santa Claus is, strictly speaking, a myth. Children are in general smarter than their parents, and only lose their super-powers as they get older.

They will often play along with the Santa-Reindeer-Chimney game because it clearly means so much to their parents and other assorted adults. Also it’s kind of fun. Our granddaughter has already given us the look when we mention the S-word, meaning that she understands why we talk about it, but she knows the truth.

Of course she does.

But when faced with the Nativity story children immediately realise that they are dealing with reality. It is a bit of a struggle to get all the facts right, because as usual adults have made it confusing by introducing all kinds of irrelevant things that didn’t actually happen.

Christmas cards and carols have much to answer for, but so do the mis-tellings of the story, as if it had been passed down by years of Chinese whispers instead of being translated into fairly  plain English.

Take the star over the stable. There was no star, and the stable has been seriously misrepresented. New non-existent characters have been introduced. Landlords in particular.

The shepherds were not guided by a star. OK, you knew that. The star guided the powerful wise men, or kings, and that didn’t happen till Jesus was toddling around and Joseph and Mary were living permanently in Bethlehem. In a house. And not at Christmas time.

Joseph and Mary were not refused entry to an inn by a landlord. They were almost certainly staying in a tower built in the countryside to protect lambs destined to be sacrificed by the  high priest. Because there was no guest room there, they had to stay with the sheep, but the surroundings would have been clean because sacrificial lambs were well looked after.

Other animals, cute or not, were unlikely to have been present.

What about the angels? Any child will tell you that the angels were there, all right. Children understand angels.

And they understand that the whole story makes sense. All right, it’s mysterious, but life is mysterious. It’s awesome, but life is awesome. Is it silly, like Santa? No, it most certainly isn’t.

Once again, the truth has been cunningly distorted by something that is not apparently evil but quite amusing, sentimental, and nostalgic. We three kings, in the bleak midwinter, three ships sailing by, holly, ivy, sleigh bells, bears, elves and lots of merry gentlemen.

A neat trick, but not neat enough to deceive a child. Oh no. Adults, yes.

Paying attention to Christmas

Confused by Christmas? Finding it hard to picture the whole manger scene, with the donkey and the Christmas tree? Not sure whether the angels and the reindeer would have frightened the sheep?

Is wishing on a star any better than trying to persuade Father Christmas, against all the evidence, that you have been good for a whole year?

Well, you are not alone.  According to a recent poll, one in ten young adults thinks that Santa Claus appears in the Bible, a Christmas tree featured in the Nativity and December 25 is stated by the Gospel writers to be the date of Jesus’ birth.

Presumably a good deal more than one in ten think it doesn’t really matter, since my own poll has revealed that for 90% of the population, life is what happens when you’re not really paying attention.

As a result, Christmas has become something of a muddle. Traditional rather static figures rub shoulders with the manufactured excitement of computer-generated images and super-heroes. To 21st century eyes,  Father Christmas and God have identity problems. Angels hover in the wings.

They don’t actually have wings, of course. At least that’s what Vatican expert Father Renzo Lavatori says. He says they are more like shards of light, which I have to say I find quite a reasonable and attractive idea.

Novelist Tom Clancy said that the difference between reality and fiction was that fiction had to make sense.  He meant, of course, that what actually happens in life often isn’t easy to understand from a logical point of view.

What happened at Christmas was a one-off, and not easy to understand in the 21st century. For the record, Father Christmas is not God. He did not appear in the stable and nor did the Christmas tree.

So what did happen? Well, we all know that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on December 25. Intriguingly, it has been calculated that he was born on September 11 in 3BC, on the Jewish New Year. Jesus was a Jew, if you remember.

There were angels and shepherds, but one fascinating idea is that the actual birthplace was a structure called Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock, within the bounds of Bethlehem, where lambs were prepared for sacrifice in the temple at nearby Jerusalem. It’s mentioned by the prophet Micah.

The three wise men (or however many) weren’t there. They didn’t come along till Jesus was a toddler, probably between one and two years old. So no star. No celebrities either. No carols. Which of course is taking it a bit far.

Do these details matter? In the end it’s a question of belief. Do we believe in God, and if so, do we believe he became man? Is that a stretch too far? Is it possible? Does it make sense? Is it easier to begin thinking about something else?

Do we believe Christmas is real?

Do you believe in Father Christmas? All right, that’s an easy one. But what do you really, really believe in? And what connection does it have to reality?

Someone said that reality is what remains after you stop believing in it. In other words, reality doesn’t depend on  belief. Or does it?

Experiments in quantum physics suggest that what happens may depend on who is watching. St Paul says that an act of faith is necessary for the veil to be lifted from our eyes: that we can’t see what’s really going on until we place our faith in God.

Most people, of course, reject that entirely. Seeing is believing, we say. Give us proof, and then we’ll believe.

A lot of people believed the world was going to end on December 21 this year, because certain calculations involving the Mayan calendar suggested as much. You don’t have to be cranky or gullible to believe that an ancient people may have known something we don’t. To paraphrase Linus in Peanuts, some of those ancient people were pretty sharp. But to put all our eggs in the Mayan basket would have been unwise, to say the least. All prophecies attempting to date the end of the world have been wrong. So far. Obviously.

Many people regard faith in much the same way as putting all your roulette chips on one number. Others see it as a no-cost bet. But people who believe Christianity is true (as opposed to those who see it as a respectable lifestyle) don’t see it as a bet at all. They agree with Stephen Verney, who wrote that “faith is being grasped by a truth which confronts you and which is self-evident and overwhelming, and then trusting yourself to the reality which you now see”.

This is, I suppose, an irritating viewpoint to those who don’t believe and would prefer the matter to be settled in a “rational” way. But the coming together of faith and reality is a powerful thing.

To many people, Christmas consists largely of a temporary suspension of disbelief. And despite a few high points, this can only end in disappointment. Fooling ourselves can be fun on the kind of superficial level that occupies us most of the time, but how much more exciting if the essence of Christmas were actually true.

Is it a coincidence that all the great stories in world literature are about sacrifice, salvation and redemption? That is what really grips and moves us, until we return to reality. Unless of course we have it wrong: maybe we’re returning from reality when we put those stories aside and concentrate on the mundane horrors of making a living.

Reality and belief are intertwined. Don’t be fooled by the tinsel.