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Monday 15 December 2014

The Nativity Pigs

There were pigs in my daughter’s Nativity Play. She told me as much weeks ago, but I finally saw for myself last night. They are part of a cast of anthropomorphised animals that decide to stay awake to see the arrival of their presents. Santa Claus is not mentioned, but the surprise birth of Christ will occur that very night in the animals’ manger…. So, let’s get this straight. The animals, which include the only domesticated pink pigs in first century Judea, are excited about celebrating a Christmas that hasn’t been invented yet.  What I am describing is Caroline Hoile’s “Cockadoodle Christmas”, a musical created for three to seven year olds, containing eight original songs. With weird surreal convolutions and contradictions in the plot, it is a very apt representation of Church of England religious culture.

Looking at the whole play made me think of the “’Til Death Do US Part” Christmas special, where a hugely Anglicized version of the events was discussed by comedy’s favourite bigot, Alf Garnett. Garnett’s wife Else also comments that it was not surprising Mary and Joseph couldn’t find room for the night, as "everything is closed at Christmas!" The reality is that we have now arrived at a time whereby few people care about the surreal notion of a Christmas tradition already being in place prior to their being a Christ. Matters are not made better by fundamentalists who object the secularization of the festivities. They are often the same ones who suddenly decided that Halloween was a Satan-worshipping tradition, somehow forgetting the meaning of the title. True, Halloween was a Pagan tradition prior to being Christianized, but according to many 18th and 19th century historians and Christians alike, so was Christmas. Similar things could be said about Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection that coincides the fertility festivals of spring in the western hemisphere.

"In the Bleak Midwinter" is a poem, now generally sung as a popular and beautifully melancholy carol, that re-imagines the Nativity in northern England. However, as has been pointed to me, snow has been known to fall in Judea during the winter months of November to February, so we shouldn't scoff at the Christmas cards that show snow covered mangers. At least that might be the case if there was historical evidence to show that Jesus was born during those months. Not only is there no historical evidence of Christ being born then, it goes against the scriptural account. A Roman census, which led Mary and Jospeph to return to Bethlehem to register, would not have been held during the winter months and neither would shepherds been watching their flocks by night. There is no historical or scriptural record of the definite year, let alone month or day of Jesus's birth.

The Christmas that the majority of the world has now settled on is a bizarre combinations of traditions some of which probably stems from a need for people living in the western hemisphere to cheer themselves up during its darkest and sometimes coldest days: midwinter. Nevertheless, there are many popular arguments that say it was a transformation of the Roman festival for their sun god, Sol Invictus, or that it occurred precisely nine months to the day that some Christians say Christ was conceived. Regardless of this attempt to solemnize the legitimacy of the date, the traditions of Christmas are overwhelmingly pagan and secular, and the Christian representation is one that has severely filtered through European art and translation. I have little time for the conspiracy theorists who think that the festival is being secularized. Those who protest at others calling the festival "Happy Holidays" really need to exercise a more live and let live attitude to their fellow humans.  

I  have plenty of sympathy for those who choose not to celebrate Christmas for religious or irreligious reasons. I really think the charitable aspect of Christmas or the Christmas Spirit should be extended through tolerance. No one should be bullied into having a joyous disposition or to celebrate something they don't want to celebrate. I am not a religious person at all anymore, but I think there is something universal in the desire to brighten up the darkest month of the year and to inspire a sense of charity. There is still a big part me of that has empathy for those who treat it as another day and take advantage of the fact that they can focus on the work better. In some respects, I pay tribute to that side of me by having a traditional training session.

On this note, it seems a little silly to argue against the secularization of Christmas. Likewise, I don't think secularists should worry too much about using the word "Christmas". I have gone through many phases regarding this time of year. The end of teenage years saw a petulant dislike of the season rise in me like so much brandy butter flavoured bile in my throat. I loathed the pressures of getting Christmas presents, the forced friendships with people you just didn't get on with, the idea of embracing tackiness in a post-ironic way and sickening false sentimentalism of celebrities. It also coincided with my reaction to organized religion, which only stoked my fires. Years later I learnt to make the most of any popular festival, embracing what I liked about it and disregarding the rest. Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby drowned out Slade, Wizzard and Paul McCartney and all the other tacky nonsense in my home. I will watch Gremlins over most Christmas movies. Garlands and wreathes counter tinsel and paper chains. The Pogues and the soundtrack to The Muppets Christmas Carol have proven great antidotes to Bob Geldolf's pop dictatorship over which charity we should donate to. I think this year we have a lot to learn from the way Adele responded to his call and quietly donated to a charity prior the release of the fourth incarnation of a record that no one has any real pride in creating. 

Christmas, like any celebration, is what you make of it and that is how it has naturally endured, and been accepted by so many. Christmas has continuously mutated. Odin and eight-legged horse flying across the skies has morphed into a role taken on by St. Nicholas and his eight reindeer. In turn, he has become a figure that has been seen as something an opponent to the saint's chosen religion, Jesus himself. It is often amusing to see these mutations take place and it is why we have plays such as "Cockadoodle Christmas".

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