This post also appears on the my work blog here
This has been a post in formation for weeks and I was never sure I felt brave enough to write it in a real way for people to see...but Bishop Nick Baines has got in before and dealt with the stick over the weekend...so I feel a bit like I'm jumping on the bandwagon - but hey, we all do that in the world of blogging!
So, check out Nick's post here Grumpy Bishop. He's recently published a book which I'll say now, just like all the media who have entered the scrum of interviewing him, I haven't read yet. But based on this post, he is from the same stable as me - if you'll excuse the pun! (Cos it was probably a cave!!)
My problem with Christmas (I love it really, don't get too worried!!) came with the arrival of M 3 years ago - her first Christmas didn't really matter as she was only 10 days old. But come her first birthday, followed rapidly by Christmas Day, it was very difficult not to get caught up in the assumption that Father Christmas would be visiting our house in the dead of night and delivering presents.
I love the idea and the legends of Father Christmas and the root of it's story in St Nicholas who was a 3rd century miracle worker, renowned for secret gift giving and whose feast day is this Sunday. But I have a problem with the commonly held assumption that Santa (who is a character developed by cartoonist Thomas Nash in 19th century America and then taken on by mighty Coca Cola), who in contrast to St Nicholas is a jolly, red faced, red suited old man living in the North Pole, are one and the same.
The titles Father Christmas and Santa Claus seem to be interchangeable - indeed in the North East where we used to live, Santa is often Santee (try it with a Geordie accent!!)
But the roots of these characters - fictional, historical, the stuff of legend, whatever - are very different and portray different aspects of the Gospel and the Christmas story. Whilst I am not going to go down the extreme line of saying the whole thing is a lie and Father Christmas can't possibly visit every house in the world in one night etc., I am going to make sure that the traditions we have and the story we tell is faithful whilst also being magical and not ultimately confusing to a 6/7/8 year old in years to come.
Ultimately - I want M to understand that she receives gifts, not because she has been a good girl, but because we love her and because we want to celebrate the wondrous story of Jesus' birth and his life given out for her and for us. It always has everything to do with GRACE - and giving gifts is not because we are good, but in fact the opposite - but we are LOVED, by God and by one another and so we can bless one another...that is our call as disciples.
I HATE it when people ask small children whether they have been good this year and if Santa is going to come - of course they haven't been good...they are small children!! But in our house, M will get a small stocking of presents, outside her door, from us to open in bed and Father Christmas will have visited the house overnight - drinking a bit of something, scoffing a mince pie and maybe leaving some gold coins as the original St Nicholas is said to have done. All her other presents will come from us - real people who love her and know her and want to be part of the pleasure of giving gifts as she is in the giving of gifts to others.
Ok, so that's the Santa bit done...
Now a quote from Nick Baine's blog, referenced above: Now, some commentators say that Christmas is about sentiment (feeling), nostalgia and ‘magic’. They say that simple carols are great for children to begin to learn the story. Absolutely right. But the people arguing this are not children, but adults who want to stay as children when it comes to matters of God and faith and so on. Think like a child when you are a child, but, for goodness’ sake, grow up when you are an adult.
I find it ironic that for the rest of the year, a majority of our population want nothing to do with Christian tradition in any way but suddenly at Christmas they become hugely defensive of anything being different or changing or being criticised. The depth of understanding of what Christmas and this huge celebration are really all about is missing - and I see 2 reactions as I go about my work and experience life.
Some churches and Christians do nothing to celebrate Christmas...no carols or Christmas services or trees or anything which is vaguely pagan or rooted in tradition - everything just carries on as normal until the BIG DAY. Missing out Advent, in my opinion is the real shame here...but that's another issue!
On the other extreme, there are many churches and Christians who do everything traditionally and don't question 'why' or whether it's helpful. I remember one of my first parish posts and the whole of December being taken up with either visiting or hosting Carol Sevices or nativity plays - by schools, Townswomen's Guild (yes seriously!), nurseries etc. You did want to tear your hair out by the end and it had slightly lost it's magic in the repetition.
My reaction is to try and do something in the middle - I love Christmas carols but hate Away in a Manger and the 'How silently' verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem. Mary was NOT silent in labour, OK!
We'll be having a tree even though it stems from pagan tradition...(!)because it forms a focal point in our home for Christmas celebrations and it is a precious family occasion to buy the tree and decorate it. We will feed people, host people, visit with people - mainly those we know or are related to, although when M is older we endeavour to be spending time with those who don't have the advantages of Christmas traditions and family that we are blessed with.
The difficulty of taking an extreme reaction to Christmas traditions and popular culture is that you get bah humbuged by everyone else...which is difficult to take, in what is supposed to be a season of goodwill after all!! But if we Christians can't communicate seriously the true meaning of Christmas, then how can we expect those who only take part in the traditions once a year to really know what we're all about??
+Nick continues: The ‘magic’ of Christmas is fine – up to a point. But ask any clergy and they will tell you about the ways in which Christmas is hard for many people and how the ‘magic’ makes it harder. It is for them that the reality of Christmas hits home: that God has not remained a million miles above contradiction, but opted in to the muck and messiness of the world and meets us where we are – in the vulnerability of the baby in Bethlehem. To tell that story is not to be miserable – but the opposite.
I am just not prepared to encourage people to live in a fantasy world, but doing my job as a Christian bishop in calling people back to the original story. Grasp it – and then celebrate hard and fully. I’ll be belting out the carols and watching the nativity plays along with the rest of them. But I will also be living in the real world and engaging my brain.
+Nick - I'm with you. I'll be doing mobile carolling on 20th December, going into London and experiencing the Christmas lights and soaking up the excitement. I'll be making mince pies and sausage rolls and wrapping presents and sneaking about on Christmas Eve, stopping Andy from squeezing presents and we'll probably be eating and drinking too much. But I hope in the midst of all that, I'll be reminded of why we get to celebrate this amazing event - because it changed the world, it changed my world and I want it to change the world of my daughter and her friends and our families and our community because we tell it how it really is - check out the Gospels - if you take the 'text' out of 'context' - what are you left with??