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Bad Christmases are nothing new

  • 18 December 2014

 Nowadays people are as likely to reminisce about the bad Christmases when everything went wrong and everyone behaved badly as they are about the good ones. The frankness is helpful: the conventional image of an idyllic time for the ideal family makes Christmas time a crushing burden for people whose experience of Christmas has been of deprivation, conflict and misery. It is always good to know that hard experience has been shared. 

Perhaps, too, bad Christmases take us closer to the spirit of the first Christmas. The Gospels present the first Christmas as the Birth of the Messiah. Whatever people of the time imagined that a Birth of the Messiah would be like was systematically unlike the Scriptural accounts. They would have imagined important things happening to important people in important places in edifying circumstances. 

 Their imagining would certainly not have run to a rocky engagement which the man almost called off on discovering that his fiancée was pregnant with a child that was not his. Nor would it have included a long march to fill in tax forms, having to sleep on the streets and to give birth in a paddock, suffering an invasion of smelly and disreputable shepherds and odd foreigners, an undignified flight in the middle of the night and eking out a life as asylum seekers in Egypt.

But that of course is the point of the Gospel stories – that when the God who comes into the world goes beyond the margins of the acceptable to include outsiders. God defies polite expectations. To unsympathetic observers this birth took place on the wrong side of the blanket and the wrong side of town. In the Gospel stories the good news is that God includes everybody, and the celebration of Christmas nudges us to do the same.

Perhaps that explains why when later generations worked on the stories of Christmas they went beyond the main characters to give faces to people who had only a marginal role. The innkeeper was given a face, the three Magi were given crowns, character and names, animals came into the field, Joseph and Mary found themselves with a servant boy, and Mary discovered a mother and father. Of course a few marginal characters were left out – those such as Elizabeth and Anna who disappear from the story. Also those who were necessary to make things happen: think of Mary’s chaperone when visiting Elizabeth, the