Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas!

At this time of year, it is customary to wish peace and goodwill to all men. And indeed I do. I look forward to this time of year, even more so since I have been to university, because it gives me a great chance to catch up with a lot of friends who I don't see that often but find very pleasant company. We always keep it very much as a family occasion, and particularly now that myself and my brother are away from home for large periods of time, it is great to be all back together.

However, I do get dismayed by much of the commercialism that surrounds Christmas. Sure, it is nice to receive and to give presents; but why do the stores fill up with so much Christmas tat? Why would people suddenly want to have mince pie socks in December when sales the rest of the year would be non-existent? The advertising drives surrounding Christmas really do drive me crazy. A present is worth buying if the recipient is going to appreciate it. If not, then all that happens around Christmas is that it turns into a mass market-fest; suiting commercial owners and advertising companies but not really achieving as much as it could. The fact that Christmas displays seem to begin in November, and on occasion even as early as October, further serves to dilute the Christmas message.

Now, I suppose part of this is an inherent problem caused by the fact that Christmas is a celebration of a religious festival in an increasingly areligious world. Perhaps this is best expressed by the fact that Christmas is actually the least important of the major Christian festivals (an interesting parallel to be drawn here with Judaism, where Hanukah is the least important of their festivals). Yet I strongly believe that the symbolism of Christmas is relevant and highly useful if taken within its proper context (by that, I mean not the saccharine, politically correct, "Happy Holidays!" style celebration that is pushed at us by the media too scared to offend anyone).

For academic work has shown - as if it needed to be proved! - that the Christmas story as understood by us is, to a greater or lesser extent, fictional. Newsweek ran an excellent article in their latest issue fully placing the gospels in their historical context, and explaining the religious ramification of the Christmas story. Mark's gospel, written earlier than the rest, doesn't mention Christ's birth at all; John's gospel, insofar as it deals with Christ's birth at all, mentions it in highly figurative language. The historical context of the writing of Matthew and Luke, furthermore, was at a time when Christianity was still seen very much as a cult, and great efforts were having to be made by his followers to convince the rest of the world that he was indeed the Messiah.

Thus, the emphasis placed on Mary's sexual virtue (which historically is highly questionable), for example, is designed to show that although miraculous births were seen throughout the Jewish tradition, this one was more miraculous than any other. Luke goes to great lengths to explain why Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem; almost none of the 'facts' regarding the census are historically verified. Even the language placed in the mouths of the participants in the story is designed to remind readers of prophecies contained in the books of the Old Testament.

But the story is even more valuable than that. The friendship and warmth shown by the innkeeper, who found room for Joseph and Mary when he could quite easily have turned them away completely. The notion of kings coming and bringing gifts, submitting themselves before a small child. The fact that shepherds - perhaps the "chavs" of the time - arrived at the manger before anyone else.

In short, that virtues of kindness, friendship, hospitality, generosity, family allow society and community and, ultimately, humans, to function in the face of terrible hardship. Or, to put it another way, that materialism and greed can be conquered by the values listed above. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and trust you will all find time for the true message of the season.