I’ve an annual soft-spot for John Betjeman’s Christmas poem. I’m an unashamed lover, not of what Betjeman calls the “tissued fripperies”, but of the stories, though they’re not history; the carols, though their ‘theology’ seems past its ‘use-by’ date; the Old Testament quotes, though they’re dubiously ‘borrowed’ to spice up the mix; and the music from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ to Corelli’s ‘Christmas Concerto’.
Though it’s impossible in 500 words, what’s ‘the meaning’ of Christmas? For me, it’s not about beliefs we should hold, but about how our lives could be lived, and the values we can aspire to. These stories are among the world’s greatest, and what matters about stories isn’t factuality, but truth to human life and relationships.
To take just a very few examples, the Nativity Stories say something about …
(i) The importance of communication, transparency and trust in human relationships, marital and otherwise, and thinking the best of people, rather than the worst. It’s about being sensitive to others, exploring all possibilities before turning assumptions into facts and acting in haste, then repenting (hopefully) afterwards.
(ii) The unexpected hardships people experience when events beyond their control force them to leave their homes, and become ‘refugees’ elsewhere, dependent on strangers to be welcoming with supportive shelter and sustenance, rather than having “no room in the inn” for outsiders. For Bethlehem, think Rwanda. For Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ think Putin’s destruction of Ukraine’s energy supplies.
(iii) It’s about the possibility of new beginnings, whatever the past – about keeping hope alive and looking for the light at the tunnel’s end – about generosity in giving rather than cold-hearted stinginess – about inclusivity rather than exclusivity – about not acquiescing in prejudicial, hateful, destructive opinions, intrigues and behaviour. This is just some of the timeless relevance of these age-old stories, which always have more lessons to teach, and should valued for what they are.
What about ‘beliefs’, such as “God was Man in Palestine”? This means, for me, that openness to the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus, can make us ‘good and decent’ people, contributing to a better and more decent world, one that Jesus called “the Kingdom of God”.
Jesus “lives today in bread and wine”, reminds me of Blake’s, “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” For any piece of bread or glass of wine to be where they now are, depends on everything that’s previously happened in the history of the universe. They connect us to what’s been called the “the Source of Being itself”, which lives in everything that exists, including Jesus of Nazareth. This won’t satisfy everyone, but it’s a brief taste of what Betjeman’s poem, and the Nativity Stories, say to me.
My Christmas essentials include the awed wonder and exuberant joy of Arcangelo Corelli’s ‘Christmas Concerto’, fatto per la notte di Natale (“made for the night of Christmas”). Here it is, soulfully and energetically played by the Main-Barock-Consort. Have a meaningful, merry Christmas !