22 December, 2013

"For Such As Care To Attend....."

Susanna Cibber - a scandalised woman but
at the premier of the Messiah her faith
showed through and her sins were forgiven!
On Monday night Pat’s choir took part in the annual Community Messiah in our local Church – St Peter’s. As I have blogged about before for many, including myself, hearing Handel’s great work marks the beginning of Christmas.  It is a “Community Messiah” – in other words anyone can come along and join in. The conductor, instead of having his back to the audience as is usual in a concert, on this occasion faces the audience and choir as they stand together in the pews and join to sing Handel’s great music. And at the end everyone, choir and people stand side by side to applaud – not, perhaps, the quality of the performance, although that is always wonderful, but rather the great music, the coming together and, most importantly, the message that the Messiah brings.

After the event Pat commented that the four soloists had all been good and in particular she mentioned the bass – a gentleman who has sung the part with the choir since the choir’s inception half a century ago. She was right, and she was also right when she commented that he sang every word as if he believed totally in the words he was repeating. We know that he is a committed Christian so, I suppose, that was to be expected but the fact that he was not just reciting the musical score made the performance even more memorable. The great music and words when combined with his obvious belief gave it an extra “edge.” It reminded me very much of the oft told tale of the first performance of the Messiah in Dublin in 1742. The women soloists on that occasion were Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber well known opera singers of the time. In those days opera singers, actors and the like, although stars of the theatre, were every much regarded as rather dubious and amoral people. To have these two women singing part of a religious work was, in 18th century terms, risqué. In the case of Cibber, however, it was worse - only three years before she and London society had been scandalised because Susanna had been at the centre of a great court case having been proved to be part of a menage de trois with her husband and their lodger! During that first performance of the Messiah, however, a Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by her rendering of "He was despised" that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" Clearly her faith showed through!

We will be back at St Peter’s over the weekend when, as usual, we will be attending the annual carol service. I have no doubt that the church will be packed as it usually is for this event. And on Christmas Eve, we will go with our children and grandchildren to their local church to join in the annual Christmas Eve children’s service where any child can dress up as a member of the Christmas story and take part in the retelling of the great tale. At the end of the service the children will be at the front in tableau form - the Christmas message will be passed on. And each year up and down the country and across many nations the story will be told of those happenings in a far off country over 2000 years ago.

In this day and age I’m sure few actually believe that the events as described in the Bible actually took place in the way that they are depicted in carols, in nativity plays and on Christmas cards. The story, though wonderfully told, is to most of us, a matter of faith – we believe it no matter how unlikely it sounds. Perhaps it is all little more than a few facts becoming entangled over 2000 years - the Roman rule of Palestine, a great census, an unusual birth in a small town in Palestine, a rather bright comet that happened to appear at about that time,  a young preacher achieving a certain notoriety in the Roman occupied land - and all the rest - maybe this is all there is to Christmas myth.  Author Doris Lessing’s comment that “myth is a concentration of the truth”  - is maybe right, that disparate events are simply concentrated into one tale to make a “whole”. Certainly,  if one looks at the story as told in the Bible or as seen on millions of Christmas cards it would be easy to find yawning gaps in the absolute “truth” of it. "Clever" people like the famous atheist and humanist Richard Dawkins would have no trouble at all in demolishing the events of Christmas story but that, however, misses the point. It is not the story but what it represents that is important and this in turn brings in the notion of faith; I cannot prove there is a God, or that Christmas happened as the Bible says, but I believe it to be so. That is faith. And it is the nature and nub of all of the world’s great religions.
Putting away the Sikh Holy Book

Some years ago Pat and had the good fortune to visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the spiritual home of all Sikhs. It was a hugely humbling and moving experience where the innate faith and goodness of that religion were positively tangible. We walked through the Golden Temple at night and listened to the Sikh Gurus reading from their texts and at the appointed hour watched, fascinated and in awe as the great Sikh Holy Book was transported from the Temple, as it is each night, to its resting place. The crowds gathered around desperate to touch the golden Ark carrying the book – this was faith in its rawest form and humbling. The book, in addition to any guidance that it gave Sikhs, was a symbol of their faith and belief as the Christmas story is to Christians.

I was rudely reminded of this faith issue last week when there was a minor uproar in the UK. A vicar was taken to task by parents at a school in Wiltshire. He had been talking to the children and explaining the legends of Santa Claus and his links with figures from the past like Saint Nicholas. I have done that many, many times in Christmas school assemblies  – indeed the tales he was telling were the very ones that I have used over and over. Unfortunately some incredibly stupid parents accused him of ruining the belief that young children have in Santa – and, bizarrely,  that the children might no longer believe in the tooth fairy!!!!!. Hmmmm? They took it still further by threatening to burst into his church on Christmas Day and shout that the Christmas story is not true. Clearly, that says more about the parents than it does about the unfortunate vicar. Obviously they didn’t quite “get” the bit about faith – most Christians like adherents of most great religions do not, I suspect, believe in the literal story of their God or spiritual icon, it is faith as represented by the tales and symbols of the religion that sustains them. Were I in that church if and when they burst in my response would be “and your point is? – we know the story is myth and it matters not one jot – I believe it”! Of course, this sort of thing is not new when people hear things that they don't like! It's all rather reminiscent of the story of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in the 12th century.  The King, Henry II, did not like the stance that Becket took and in a fit of fury angrily asked "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest"? The rest is history: his comment was heard by four of his knights who travelled to Canterbury and killed Beckett as he knelt at the altar. People, be they kings or parents of young children in Wiltshire, don't like their worlds being upset, their desires thwarted or the fun and cuteness of Christmas being sidelined by such people as  priests! So far as the Wiltshire parents are concerned and using sporting parlance it seems to be Santa, Rudolph, presents, turkey & partying 1 the sacred, the serious and faith 0! 
Angry Wiltshire parents and their troublesome priest!

But there is another dimension of this. In the UK (and I am sure, too, in other western nations) it is common for the right wing media to complain that our essential national identity is being sidelined, eroded and compromised by the beliefs and traditions – especially religious - of other nations. The globalisation of the world and the mass movements of people that are a characteristic of the modern age mean that the faith and beliefs of others can easily clash and, over a period of time, be marginalised. There is perhaps an inevitability about this – and it causes problems at an everyday level – as immigration alters the ethnic make up of populations. I recently read that the Girl Guides Association have, rightly, changed their Guide’s Promise so that it is inclusive of other faiths. Their action has, however, caused much consternation. Issues such as this are often depicted as “threatening” to the indigenous culture by right wing extremists. Whatever the truth of that I do not believe that our society helps itself. As a society we have consistently secularised Christmas and confused the Christmas story as set out in the Bible with a hotchpotch of other beliefs and celebrations – Santa, parties, mince pies, Christmas trees and so on – things that have little or nothing to do with the essential nature and message of the Christian Christmas story. Christmas, like other great religious events throughout the world is, of course, a time  of celebration – but increasingly in the west we have allowed and encouraged the celebration aspect over its religious foundations.

I have just been looking at the TV schedules for this year’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; despite there being some 102 hours of TV programmes on the six main terrestrial channels there are only five religiously based programmes -  BBC has four and ITV has only one. This gives a total of two hours and fifty minutes devoted to the Christmas message – less than 3% of the time available. Equally, when I turn my TV on and see adverts for programmes or goods all are prefaced and based upon Santa, reindeer, snowmen, elves and the like – God is nowhere to be seen! It has not always been so. As a child I can remember that each year we watched (for example) on our little black and white TV the story of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” – the opera by Menotti. My parents were not opera enthusiasts nor particularly religious, and to be fair my father grumbled all the way through, but it was a way of “keeping Christmas”. And throughout the days of Christmas we would tune in to the various carol services and the like that were then offered as part of the scheduling. In short we are today giving away Christmas in favour of fun and party poppers.
If you haven't read it you are missing a treat

I am reminded of George Layton’s wonderfully poignant and explosively funny short story “The Christmas Party” (in the book “The Fib and Other Stories”) . In the story, on the day of the school Christmas party the teacher, Miss Taylor, asks her class what is the most important thing about Christmas. “Presents, Miss” shouts out one of the children. Miss Taylor replies “No. Tony, not presents. Christmas is when the baby Jesus was born, and that is the most important thing, and when you are all enjoying your presents and parties, you must all remember that. Will you promise me?” And, says Layton, “Everybody promised that they’d remember baby Jesus...... .”  Sadly, however, I fear the birth of Jesus will not be on the minds of the majority in our allegedly Christian societies as we enter the festive period - but I find that hard to blame on Hindus or Moslems or Sikhs or indeed confessed atheists, agnostics or humanists! As a society we increasingly choose the flippant, the mercenary and the cute over the profound, the serious or, in this case, the sacred! But, hey, let's have a good time - get another drink in, pull another cracker, turn up the radio so we can hear the latest Christmas number 1 we don't want seriousness or religion to mess up Christmas.

The effect of this mixing up of Christmas messages, of confusing the Bible story with the ancient mid-winter celebrations and beliefs about Santa, reindeer, elves, parties, presents and the rest means that as a society we are actively “watering down” our own beliefs. Given that scenario it is not surprising that the strong convictions of those other religious groups within our society – Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and the rest begin to look threatening. It is not the fault of these other religious groups – they are simply being true to their faith. We, on the other hand, increasingly wish to be less true to ours and substitute the essential Christian messages with tales of reindeer and jolly men with long white beards. In short, our beliefs and traditions are being overridden not by people of other faiths but by our own disinterest and commitment to our own. One only needs to think about the tale I quoted above about the parents in Wiltshire or look at the TV scheduling to see the truth of that – Santa is quite simply more important to than the Christian message. And if any further proof is needed, then consider the recent comment by Sarah Palin the American politician and one time presidential candidate:"I love the commercialization of Christmas because it spreads the Christmas cheer the most jolly holiday on our calendar ... obviously." American blogger, Leann ruefully and rightly commented “I can't make this stuff up people!” (http://crazyworld-leann.blogspot.co.uk/ ).
Rudyard Kipling
Each Christmas I am reminded of the importance of faith and belief when I think of Rudyard Kipling's great, powerful and thought provoking poem, Eddi’s Service (AD 687). I used this poem often at school in the run up to Christmas and it has formed the backbone of a number of the carol concerts that I organised over the years. Although Kipling wrote this almost a century ago and it refers back to a time in the distant past it has that strange and wonderful quality of being almost more relevant today than it was then. When I first discovered the poem many years ago I was mystified by its title and it was only when I did a little research that it all made sense.

Eddi, refers to Eddius Stephanus who was chaplain at the tiny church of St Wilfrid's in Church Norton, Sussex in the late seventh century. Church Norton was also known as Manhood End. Little is known about Eddi except that he was a follower of St Wilfrid and it is thought that he was also called Stephen of Rippon. Wilfrid had been shipwrecked off the Sussex coast in about the year 680 and so violent were the local Saxons that he only escaped with his life to the north of England to York. Wilfrid is mentioned in the writing of Bede, the mediaeval monk and scholar and he was appointed to be Bishop of York where he set about rebuilding the church – later to become the great York Minster - which had fallen into some state of disrepair. It was while in York that Wilfrid appointed Eddi as his singing master to teach monks plainchant. Presumably that is also the connection for Eddius with Ripon – for that town is just down the road from York.  Eventually, Eddi and Wilfrid set off in the late 7th century and travelled together to convert the unruly Saxons throughout the length and breadth of England and at last they arrived back in the Sussex area.
Eddius Strephanus' "Vita Sancti

During that time Eddi is thought to have written of the life and work of Wilfrid in one of the first Anglo Christian documents. Vita Sancti Wilfrithi. This  document, written in mediaeval Latin, is now housed in the British library in London and in the Bodleian in Oxford.  Wilfrid was determined to convert the Saxons of Sussex to Christianity and was lucky in his dealings with them. He met the local Saxon king who was impressed by Wilfrid’s religious conviction and  his bravery in coming to such an unruly and heathen place and so he gave Wilfrid land upon which he could support himself and his followers and where he could build a church. This church became a cathedral and local folklore has it that this is now under the sea near Selsey which is at the very tip of the Manhood Peninsula. Legend has it that its bells may be heard ringing in stormy seas warning sailors and recalling Wilfrid’s first visit to the area when he was shipwrecked. As Wilfrid’s influence spread other churches were built – one of them was at Church Norton or Manhood End as it is also known and Eddi became its priest.

Eddi’s Service (AD 687)

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid, in his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service for such as cared to attend.
But the Saxons were keeping Christmas, and the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service, though Eddi rang the bell.
“Wicked weather for walking,” said Eddi of Manhood End.
“But I must go on with the service for such as care to attend.”

The altar-lamps were lighted, - an old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited, and stared at the guttering flame.
The storm beat on at the windows, the water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock pushed in through the open door. 
“How do I know what is greatest, How do I know what is least?
That is My Father’s business,” said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.

The chapel at Manhood End - scene of Eddi's
Christmas Service

“But - three are gathered together - listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!” said Eddi of Manhood End.
And he told the Ox of a Manger and a Stall in Bethlehem,

And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider, that rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel, they listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops, Eddi preached them The Word,
Till the gale blew off on the marshes and the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together wheeled and clattered away. 
And when the Saxons mocked him, said Eddi of Manhood End,
“I dare not shut His chapel on such as care to attend.”
Rudyard Kipling

St Wilfrid
Rudyard Kipling lived quite close to where all this supposedly took place and knew of the tale – hence his poem – and each time I read it I am reminded of the simple faith of Eddi. Its truth doesn’t matter – it is a matter of belief – and has just as much resonance today as the true meaning of Christmas is so often under threat by the commercialisation of the season, the drunken office parties and pub crawls  and  the silly parents complaining about a vicar “ruining” the tale of Santa or the tooth fairy for their spoiled children. Our church was full the other night to hear the Christmas story as told by Handel in his great Messiah  but it was not so full as the pubs clubs of Nottingham. And the church will be full again on Sunday for the carol service and my daughter’s church will be standing room only for the children’s Christmas service on Christmas Eve. But the reality is that the majority of the population will not be there. Just as in the heathen 7th century Saxons were celebrating mid-winter and ”keeping Christmas” in their way so, too, will the modern Saxons be keeping theirs in the shopping malls, the pubs and the clubs and by watching "Strictly Come Dancing" or "Downton Abbey" and the rest on their flat screen TVs. Most will not, as Eddi put it, “care to attend” their local church or Messiah.

Fra Angelico's 15th century painting of the
Christmas story - no Santas, reindeer, or
shopping malls. There is, however, an ox and an
ass - just like the ones who cared to attend Eddi's

 Eddi’s service and the Christmas story, as told in the Bible, are the real messages of Christmas  - not Santa, not Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, not the latest supermarket offer or technological must have, not the over used and meaningless “Merry Christmas”, not the excess of alcohol, part poppers or partying. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of Jesus – for Christians it is a time of joy and celebration. Nor is there anything wrong with celebrating midwinter – be it in pagan AD 687 or in (perhaps even more pagan!) AD 2013 - or believing in Santa, or leaving a mince pie and carrot out for Santa and Rudolph, or partying or revelry, or spending a fortune on trivial and unnecessary gifts. There is nothing wrong with all this so long, that is, that we don’t confuse it with the Christmas story, which has a totally different and opposite message to those trivial and secular matters. The Christmas story is about the nature of life, belief and humanity and as Miss Taylor, asked in George Layton’s story, we need to know what is the most important thing about it. Eddius Stephanus would have understood that perfectly.

14 December, 2013

It's the thought that counts!

Without any shadow of doubt my favourite Christmas poem is John Betjeman’s great work “Christmas”. I have read this to children and practised it with them for school Christmas Carol Concerts more times than I care to remember and each time I read its words I am in awe of the evocative scenes that Betjeman conjures up and the gently chiding nudges that he uses to point us to the real and greater message of the festival.

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say,
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

I often think, at this time of year, as we scurry around buying and wrapping presents of the words of the penultimate verse:
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

Rightly or wrongly Christmas always has been, is, and it seems increasingly becomes, a time of buying “sweet and silly Christmas things”. In recent years, however, it seems to me that “sweet and silly Christmas things” have  become a self indulgent gorging and fulfilling of our every whim, fancy and expectation as we trawl the shopping malls and exhaust our credit cards on line. The way in which our modern society gorges upon the Christmas buying spree becomes with each year that passes ever more difficult to comprehend. I know that as my own grandchildren rip off the paper around their presents on Christmas morning I will sit there and sadly fear that as each gift is ripped open it will be forgotten as quickly as it was squealed at. Increasingly, it seems to me, Christmas stockings are filled with  Christmas must haves - immediately obsolete technology or the latest fashion accessory which will soon fall out of favour when the next computer gimmick or TV chef comes along to influence the mindless.Christmas is increasingly the vehicle by which you can gain domestic heaven and social acceptability  at your dining table or street credibility amongst your peers by ensuring that you ask for the latest craze to be included in your Christmas stocking!  I sadly look at the gifts waiting to be wrapped in pretty Christmas paper and think not about the cost but how long will they find favour before they are left forgotten, battery discharged in the corner of the playroom or sitting long unopened on the kitchen cookery book shelves as some other fashion takes their place. Last night I watched adverts on the TV telling me that  I should purchase or request the "perfect gift" - a Sat Nav at only £79, a computer tablet at only £159. This sort of money can feed a family for a week or two even in this country and in some foreign lands it will feed them for a year. But,  these "perfect gifts" will, I suspect, fall out of favour as the orgy of spending moves on and Christmas jollity morphs  into the New Year sales. In this week’s Guardian writer John Harris comments upon “the sticky chicken lollipops on sale at Marks & Spencer -  £14 for a box  complete with a Japanese condiment sweet soy, mirin and ginger glaze". He goes on to mention the hi tech must haves like iPads and PS4s and rightly suggests in order to provide these Christmas fripperies  “the ghoul of debt is lurking”. All this is what our society has become as we are brainwashed and happily accept the notion of what it is to be a real 21st century family surrounded by our designer house and our wealth of material things – and, as each year passes Christmas takes this materialism to its extreme.  
From this week's Guardian

It certainly seems to have moved a long way since the kings and the shepherds took their gifts to a stable in a far off town!

A few months ago I read a wonderful book by American philosopher Michael Sandel. The book, “What Money Can’t Buy” explores some of the moral and ethical issues surrounding how we spend money and what things, if there be any, should not be “buyable”. In one section Sandel considers the issue of gifts. I must here declare an interest; I have long railed against the notion of Christmas gift lists – these were things unknown to me until I married. When I met my wife’s family I soon realised that it was the norm. One provided a list of items that you wanted for Christmas or one's birthday or Father's Day and people would say – “Yes, I’ll buy you that”. In the years since I know that this sort of thing has become endemic and it is clearly an efficient practice – it saves the buyer having to think too hard about what to buy someone, hopefully the gift will be well received by the recipient – it is after all what he or she has asked for. In harsh economic terms it makes sense is not wasting money on an item that might never be used. But, no matter how hard I try, deep down I am uncomfortable with it. For me there seems something wrong, it detracts from what I perceive should be an important element of a gift, namely that it is the result of thought on the part of the giver and as such is a two way process. It gives pleasure to the receiver for he has got a  gift and pleasure to the giver for they have identified what pleases the receiver. But, back to Sandel’s book – it clarified it all for me. He points out that to the economist the notion of a “gift” is a bit of an anathema – it fulfils no economic function. So if you are to make the best economic sense it is better to give the person money in order that they can buy exactly what they want – then the money is not wasted as it might be if you buy a present which is not exactly what the recipient desires and therefore one has, to a degree, wasted one’s money. But this, suggests Sandel, misses the point. The very act of giving a gift to someone is a very personal thing – it is a sign of your affection and desire to please that person – as the old saying goes “It’s the thought that matters” . Sandel argues: “.....a good gift not only aims to please, in the sense of satisfying the consumer preferences of the recipient. It also engages and connects with the recipient, in a way that reflects a certain intimacy [which was after all the reason for you buying the gift in the first place]. This is why thoughtfulness matters”. Sandel goes on by suggesting that friendship or intimacy – the basis upon which the gift was given - are about more than simply being useful or economical which is what is  implicit in simply giving someone the money or buying them what they ask for. To do that is just simply to provide a utility - I will buy this for you because you need it.
And also from the Guardian

Taking that to its logical extreme I might give my wife a new set of tyres for her car this Christmas. Since I know that she will need some in the near future surely she would appreciate this? Sadly, if she found four tyres under the tree on Christmas morning I suspect things would be chilly in our house for some little time! In fact I remember many years ago, my father on law when asked what he wanted for Christmas asked for a bag of compost for his garden (he was keen gardener) – this caused great consternation amongst his daughters who did not see this as a “proper gift”. They wanted to buy him something “nice” something that he might not otherwise buy himself – in Betjeman’s words a  “sweet and silly Christmas thing”. My wife and her sister’s discomfort at being asked to buy a bag of compost suggests to me that they understood that there is something “extra” to gift giving other than simply satisfying a utilitarian or economic “want”. There is a dimension that involves the giver and his or her feelings towards the recipient and those feelings in turn are linked with the desire of the giver to find something that “speaks” to the recipient over and above the ordinary utilitarian function. Christmas gift lists or simply giving the money detract in some way from that essential nature of gift giving and importantly, they also remove an essential ingredient as far as the giver is concerned. If I simply buy what the recipient has asked for or give him/her the money then as the giver I am being denied a basic pleasure of gift buying. The old saying that it is “the thought that counts”  is never more true.  As the giver, if I simply buy what I have been asked to buy or give the person some money then I have not given it any thought whatsoever. I have not been allowed use my knowledge of that person and what I believe are their preferences, I have not been able to express my particular feelings or thanks by giving something that I feel is quite appropriate for the person or the situation. And this in turn means that I have not had the pleasure of knowing that the recipient appreciated my skill and thought in understanding what would please them. Instead I am simply buying something much as I might buy a bottle of sauce from the supermarket – it is a purely utilitarian action with little emotional involvement whatsoever. And then, nonsensically, we complete this utilitarian or economic exercise by wrapping our gifts in ever more decorative and flamboyant wrapping papers, with false bows, tinsel, tassels, silver bells and the rest.  I suppose to make what is inside (which is usually known anyway since it has been asked for!) more seductive, mysterious and appealing – Betjeman’s “tissued fripperies” made real! I don’t expect the shepherds and the wise men bothered too much with that. I don't remember the bit on the Bible that says Mary exclaimed delight at the beautiful wrapping paper and bows and baubles,  and, in any case I’m sure that Mary didn’t notice the lack of wrapping paper when they passed over their mysterious and deeply thought out offerings!  

Of course, giving a gift based on utilitarian or economic bases is sometimes very understandable and will undoubtedly be much appreciated by the recipient – for example, if one lives a long way from the recipient it may be far better just to send the money. Equally, a gift given with good intent may be entirely useless to the recipient and might easily be thrown away unused. I know that my mother in law occasionally incurred the wrath of her daughters because she would often after Christmas take gifts she had been given given back to the shop from where they had been purchased and “get her money back”. That might sound unacceptable - certainly it infuriated my wife and her sister - but as Sandel suggests it would make absolute sense to the economist for it is making best economic use of the item!  In short the the whole area of gift giving is not so simple as it would appear!

The potential for “abuse” in gift giving is well illustrated by Michael Sandel when he describes a wonderful example of the ultimate utilitarian present scenario. When I read it, I thought this is what we will soon become as we hurtle towards gift giving becoming an economic activity rather than an intimate reflection of one’s esteem and affection for another. Sandel tells us of “….a recently patented system for electronic regifting. An article in The New York Times describes it as follows: Suppose your aunt gives you a fruitcake for Christmas. The fruitcake company sends you an email informing you of the thoughtful gift and giving you the option of accepting delivery, exchanging it for something else, or sending the fruitcake to an unsuspecting person on your gift list. Since the transaction takes place online, you don’t have to bother repacking the item and taking it to the post office. If you opt for regifting, the new recipient is offered the same options. So it’s possible that the unwanted fruitcake could ricochet its way indefinitely through cyberspace.”  Given that scenario then I can’t not believe that we are losing our way a little with our Christmas gifts. Of course, perhaps we should give thanks that this “regifting service” was not available in Bethlehem 2000 years ago – it could have completely altered the whole of the last 2000 years if Mary had simply “regifted” the gold, frankincense and myrrh!
John Betjeman

“It’s the thought that counts”. I thought of this in relation to my own childhood. I was lucky, although my parents were not well off, I know that they scrimped and saved to ensure that on Christmas morning I had plenty of presents to open. I can still remember many of them – indeed, I have occasionally seen some of them on TV programmes like the Antiques Road Show! One, however, stands out above all others in my memory. I was, I suppose, about 7 or 8 at the time and although I still believed in Santa I knew that this gift was coming. I knew that Santa hadn’t magically worked out what I wanted because for weeks before Christmas I was aware that it was being made. In my Dad’s little shed in the back yard he and his friend Alf worked for many nights to make me a toy fort. Alf was a lorry driver like my Dad but a skilled woodworker, too, and he, with Dad’s help made the fort out of old bits of wood. I never saw it until Christmas morning but I knew it was being made. When I came downstairs on Christmas morning the fort was there, already erected, painted a kind of grey stony camouflage colour, complete with a little home made paper flag on its highest turret and standing around its walls and in its keep were my tin soldiers – with a few new ones added. In those days tin soldiers broke notoriously easily and it always seemed to be the feet that broke off so they couldn’t stand up. On that Christmas morning I found that all my “wounded” soldiers had been repaired and each had a shiny soldered base to ensure that they stood up perfectly. I knew this was not a shop bought fort, that it was homemade – indeed when I looked at the bottom of the fort where it was unpainted I recognised the wood as being from my Dad’s shed, it still had “English Electric Co. Preston” stencilled in yellow letters on the bottom! My Dad had obviously “borrowed” some wood from his workplace!  But that didn’t detract one little bit – I was thrilled with it. I played and played with that fort and even when I became a teenager it still stood in the little curtained off alcove in my bedroom with the soldiers standing on its walls and pointing their guns and bows and arrows through its crenellations. I’m sure that my mother and dad probably wished that they could have afforded to give me a flash shop bought toy fortress and new tin soldiers, but equally I think they might have got quite a buzz out of seeing how much I loved it – and certainly, I’m sure, Dad and Alf enjoyed those nights swearing and cursing as they made it in the little shed lit only by a paraffin storm lamp. It was, indeed, the thought that counted!

And finally, I am reminded of the American writer William Sydney Porter, more famously known as O. Henry, who wrote a wonderful, magical tale of Christmas giving which puts it all into perspective and perhaps speaks more than any other of the personal nature of gifts and the importance of thought in the process. In O.Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” Jim and his wife, Della, are a young couple living in a modest New York flat. They are not well off and each has only one possession in which they take pride: Della's beautiful long, flowing hair, almost to her knees and Jim's cheap but much treasured shiny gold watch, which had once belonged to his father and grandfather. Christmas, they knew, would be a poor affair but they were determined to make the best of it.

On Christmas Eve, with only $1.87 in her purse, and desperate to find a gift for Jim, Della goes shopping. She can find nothing for $1.87 but then she sees a sign in a wig makers – hair wanted!  She sells her hair for $20 and leaves the wig makers shorn of her lovely locks – sold to make wigs for the rich ladies of New York. She scours the shops and eventually finds a splendid watch chain for Jim – an ideal gift for $21 the perfect gift to enhance Jim’s much loved watch.  Delighted, she runs home and begins to prepare their humble dinner. She has just 87 cents left in her purse.

When Jim comes home after work, he looks at Della’s shorn head but is too polite to comment. Della at last admits to Jim that she sold her hair to buy him his present. Jim, a tear in his eye gives Della her present – an assortment of expensive hair accessories and especially a lovely pearl handled comb for holding long hair in place but completely  useless now that her hair is so short. Della expresses delight and tells Jim not to worry – her hair will grow again. She hands  Jim the watch chain that she has bought for him. Another tear runs down Jim’s face as he sadly confesses to Della that he has sold his treasured  watch to get the money to buy her the combs. Jim and Della are now left with gifts that neither can use, but they realise how far they are willing to go to show their love for each other,  how priceless their love really is – and how the symbolism of their Christmas gifts are far more important than their economic or utilitarian value.
A Hollywood version  of O. Henry's

The innocence of O.Henry’s tale, of Betjeman’s poem, and, indeed, of my home made fort  is a long, long way from the Christmas present stampede and gorging of today. Each speaks of a different time and a time when thought seemed to govern our affairs and our giving of gifts. Today’s Christmas gift giving is increasingly to do with reflecting and satisfying personal desires as expressed in the Christmas gift list,  the latest fashion trend and commercial  advertising campaigns. And these in turn are all wrapped up in the latest supermarket or on line offer. Less and less it seems we give gifts based upon our thoughts, feelings and intimate insights for that person. Today’s Christmas gift giving is a mercenary affair both in the amounts spent and the implicit expectations of utilitarian value that is increasingly demanded by the receiver – “Oh, give me the money then I can buy what I want”. And we wrap it all up false bows and tinsel to make the whole thing more appealing so that the receiver can express delight and surprise when they see the gift, although they know full well what is beneath the wrapping! Can there be a sadder misrepresentation of the Christmas message. Is this what happened in Bethlehem on the first Christmas – I suspect not or Christianity would never have got off the ground! Christmas gift giving today is far removed from Betjeman’s “hideous tie so kindly meant” or, as I could easily substitute, a “home made fort with repaired tin soldiers”.  But it is within these simpler but more sincere things that the very essence Christmas resides.

02 December, 2013

Santa, Rudolph & The Church of the Nativity

Under the Bethlehem Christmas tree
Last night on the TV news the world was told that the Christmas lights had been switched on in Bethlehem and the screen showed us the thousands of people there, the bright lights, the huge tree and all the rest of the Christmas glitter. We were told that Christians and non-Christians alike were in the crowd and that a series of people had given political speeches. As the two minute item closed and the newsreader moved onto the next bit of news - the weather forecast - I darkly muttered “I wonder what Jesus thought”?
I am not overwhelmingly Christian nor do I wish to put a stop to people enjoying the Christmas festivities – my wife and I are already planning our Christmas, wrapping presents, buying in a few bottles of wine and the rest. But I have to say I did feel that the Church of the Nativity, where Christmas allegedly began deserved better than baubles, bangles, beads, tinsel and turkey. Is there no where in the world that can remain “sacred” – whatever that means – has all to be sacrificed at the altar of commerce and the contemporary imperative to have a good day, chill out and party?
Just as Jesus remembered it on that first Christmas!

I do not deny that perhaps other great religions may have the same situations; I am sure, for example, that the millions of pilgrims who attend the Hajj at Mecca each year also bring their various forms of enjoyment and commercialisation to the event, for after all, the event and the venue is, like Bethlehem, a reminder of the central core and, at the same time, celebration of their faith. I believe too, it was probably  always thus – one only needs to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales  to know that even in medieval times pilgrims went on their journeys to holy shrines for a variety of reasons and on their journeys often  displayed anything but Christian ideals! But having said that what I saw on TV: Christmas Trees, people dressed in Santa Claus outfits, plastic “statues” of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the rest all seemed at the best incongruous and at the worst totally inappropriate. It seemed a sad and profane mix of sacred belief with pagan tradition, cheap modern commercialism and the general mood of modern society to reduce all to its lowest level – the “cutification” of everything into Disney type characters, soft cuddly toys, “onesies” and pretty in pink dresses.
Is this a reverential pilgrimage and a sacred venue -
or simply a commercialised party?

Of course, we see this increasingly each year – the Christmas commercial hype seems to ever more take over the Christmas story, our TV scheduling shows a decline in programmes with any kind of religious base in favour of programmes that will “entertain”, our shopping centres increasingly gear their year around the Christmas excess with sales beginning on December 26th.  and elves, fairies, reindeer and jolly white bearded men decorate our homes, front gardens and high streets where once seraphim, cherubim, kings, shepherds and angels heralded the season. And, as I saw last night, even at the place where it all began the elves and fairies appear to have taken over where the stable is thought to have been. Perhaps it has escaped the good folk of Bethlehem (and indeed the rest of the world) that somewhere in the Bible I seem to remember that Jesus threw out the money changers and their like from the temple:
Giotto's depiction of Jesus expelling the
money changers

  "And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. 
(Matthew 21:12–13). 

What would Jesus have thought of Bethlehem and commercialism around  the church built on the spot where he was supposedly born, I wonder?
When you go to Bethlehem at Christmas you must
have a balloon and a Santa hat after all

In this context it is perhaps good to occasionally remind oneself of the simplicity and non-commercial aspects of the Christmas tradition – not from any overwhelming Christian faith but simply because we celebrate Christmas, in whatever form we perceive it, largely because of its basis upon the Christmas story which reputedly began in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. At that time, allegedly, a woman gave birth to a baby in a stable. There was no Christmas trees, not Rudolph, no Santa, no tinsel or turkey, no partying, no excess of alcohol or chocolate – just a dark stable and probably a good deal of poverty. Without that beginning there would be no Santa or Rudolph or turkey – it is good to remember that.

A poem by Clive Sansom which I often used at school puts it well, I think:

The Innkeeper’s Wife

I love this byre. Shadows are kindly here.
The light is flecked with travelling stars of dust,
So quiet it seems after the inn-clamour,
Scraping of fiddles and the stamping feet.
Only the cows, each in her patient box,
Turn their slow eyes,
Their slowly rhythmic mouths.
As we and the sunlight enter.

‘That is the stall,
Carpenter. You see it’s too far gone
For patching or repatching. My husband made it,
And he’s been gone these dozen years and more…’
Strange how this lifeless thing, this degraded wood
Split from the tree and nailed and crucified
To make a wall, outlives the mastering hand
That struck it down......my husband's warm firm hand.
‘No, strip every board, let the fire take them
And make a new beginning. Too many memories lurk
Like worms in this old wood. That piece you’re holding –
That patch of grain with the giant’s thumbprint –
I stared at it a full hour when my husband died:
Its grooves are down in my mind. And that board there
Baring its knot-hole like a missing jig-saw –
And I remember another hand along its rim.
No, not my husband’s and why I should remember
I cannot say. 

It was a night in winter.
Our house was full, tight-packed as salted herrings –
So full, they said, we had to hold our breaths
To close the door and shut the night-air out!
Mantegne's 1492 depiction of the Nativity
And then two travellers came. They stood outside
Across the threshold, half in the ring of light
And half beyond it. I would have let them in
Despite the crowding – the woman was past her time –
But I’d no mind to argue with my husband,
The flagon in my hand and half the inn
Still clamouring for wine. But when trade slackened,
And when all our guests had sung themselves to bed
Or told the floor their troubles, I came out here
Where he had lodged them. The man was standing
As you are now, his hand smoothing that board –
He was a carpenter, I heard them say.
She rested on the straw, and on her arm
A child was lying. None of your crease-faced brats
Squalling their lungs out. Just lying there
As calm as a new-dropped calf – his eyes wide open,
And gazing round as if the world he saw
In the chaff-strewn light of the stable lantern
Was something beautiful and new and strange.
Ah well, he’ll have learnt different now, I reckon,
Wherever he is. And why I should recall
A scene like that, when times I would remember
Have passed beyond reliving, I cannot think.
It’s a trick you’re served by old possessions:
They have their memories too – too many memories.
Well, I must go in. There are meals to serve.
Join us there, Carpenter, when you’ve had enough
Of cattle-company. The world is a sad place,
But wine and music blunt the truth of it.

Clive Sansom
Fra Fillipo Lippi's Nativity from 1450 - it beats Bethlehem 2013