Mistletoe and Whine

 

'My father,' remarked Jonathan 'Runs a Bed-and-Breakfast hotel. A couple turned up on Christmas Eve, but he didn't let them in.'

Pause.

'Which I thought was rather festive.'

 

In November, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School put on a version of the English Mystery Plays. The text was very heavily abridged, which is just as well, since a complete performance would have taken about seventeen hours. It was also translated into modern English, which was just as well because otherwise I would have been the only person in the audience to understand it.

The English mystery plays are a medieval pageant which weave their idiosyncratic, folk-lorish way through the Bible, from Creation to Armageddon. They frequently wander off the point. Three words in the Good Book about Noah's wife serve as a pretext for a knock-about, punch-and-judy routine between old-man Noah and his battle-axe fish-wife who won't get into his silly boat. A sentence about the death of Herod suggests a great banquet scene where Herod's knights boast about how much they enjoyed killing the babies...before Death joins them at the feast. The stories occur in a strange, present-tense never-never-land, where Caesar can summons people from Wakefield to Jerusalem to attend his census; where goodies in the Old Testament swear by St Mary and talk about the Trinity, and where baddies, whether Jewish, Egyptian or Roman worship a strange being called Mahound.

The Bristol production used the Wakefield version of the Shepherds Play which is a surreal farce about sheep-stealing. Mak pinches a lamb from three poor shepherds, and takes it home to his wife. When he hears the shepherds coming to look for the stolen merchandise he hides it in a cradle and claims that his wife has just given birth. However much it 'baas' and however hairy it looks, he continues to insist that the thing in the cot really is his new-born son. This sort of thing would probably be called blasphemous if it were put into a religious play today.

I assume that the Wakefield Poet had a theological point in mind. The shepherds are engaged in a trivial, ridiculous, and above all noisy quarrel, but the moment the Angel arrives on the scene, they lay it to one side and go off to find Baby Jesus. Oh hush thy noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing. But there is also a powerful, dramatic point. While the shepherds are quarrelling with Mak we, the audience, can forget that we are watching a 'religious' play. Before the Angel arrives, we have got to know the Shepherds as three down-to-earth, contemporary, foul-mouthed but very likeable human beings. So it's rather as if we were watching Laurel and Hardy following the Star to Bethlehem. They watch politely as the Wise Men open up in his presence their gold and myrrh and frankincense. Then they give their own, absurd, gifts:

'My hart wold blede
To see thee sytt here, in so poore wede
With no pennys
Hayll, put furth thy dall!
I bryng the bot a ball:
Have and play the with all,
And go to the tenys.'

The laugh (I think the Madonna laughs, too) is quite intentional, and completely reverent. The medieval author has rescued the shepherds from being anonymous, pious, stained glass window puppets. He has placed three human beings in the middle of the Christmas card scene, and thus made us feel that it is all really happening. Maybe, next time, the Angel will come to us.

When the curtain came down at the end of Act I there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

 

The Daily Mail, which I trust implicitly, says that Christian school-teachers have been told to remove the Three Wise Men from their nativity plays, because they are almost certainly not historical. Since non-Christian school teachers have long-ago been told to remove Baby Jesus from their nativity plays this probably will not make much difference.

Quite why the Magi, rather than the shepherds or the massacre of the innocents are being singled out for de-mythologisation eludes me. Just about everything in our popular nativity story is 'unhistorical'. Very little of it is even in the Bible. I read a piece in a church magazine over Christmas about a school nativity play which had introduced the character of the Inn Keeper's wife. Granted, said the article, she isn't mentioned, but surely, there must have been someone to bring hot water for the birth and tear up the swaddling bands? The writer seemed to be blissfully unaware that there is no inn-keeper mentioned in the Bible either. No stable, come to that. A.N Wilson speculated that 'They laid him in a manger because there was no place for him in the house' means 'Someone improvised , bringing a feeding box for animals into the room, as a substitute for a cradle.' The so- called Apocryphal Gospels are very specific about Jesus having been born, not in a stable but a cave, and I understand that the Bethlehem Tourist Board agrees with them. And surely, everybody knows that if the wise men had observed the star when Jesus was born; then He could hardly have been a new-born by the time they arrived. Maybe He was a toddler? I have the greatest possible respect for Christina Rosseti—I have the greatest possible respect for anyone who keeps a pet wombat on the dinner table—but if Jesus really was born 'in the bleak mid-winter', then, even if I had been a shepherd, where exactly would I have got a lamb from?

It's often argued (I've never seen the evidence) that our popular Christmas images—the infant light shining out in the mid-winter darkness, the worshipping animals, the desperate, hopeless journey from house to house to find somewhere for Mary to rest—were invented by the earliest Roman Bishops. They wanted to make their new-fangled religion more palatable to wavering pagans; so they worked in imagery familiar from the cult of Mithras, Apollo and the Unconquered Sun. They weren't watering down their faith; just dressing it up in local clothes. We don't know when Jesus was born, but since there's already a holiday on Apollo's birthday, why not celebrate it then? Their story was an elaboration of the Biblical one; and the Medieval Shepherds play was an elaboration of that, and we, with our little drummer boys and Innkeeper's wives, have doubtless elaborated it further. But if what they created is a beautiful, uplifting story—one that can get me reaching for the Kleenex in the back row of the Old Vic—then it might be argued that they did their job pretty well.

 

The Church of England, on the other hand, celebrated Christmas by sticking up lots of posters on railway stations. Not pictures of the Nativity mind you. No reference to God or Jesus or the Cross, no Angels, no Star, no more-or-less historical Wise Men, no completely unhistorical inn keepers wife. Instead, there was a very large copyright symbol.

'For your genuine Christmas' said the poster 'Come to church.' And underneath. 'Christmas is copyright the Christian churches.'

It isn't true, of course. You might as well say 'Thursday is copyright the Vikings.' And it's calculated to offend Jews and Atheists who don't see why Christians should have the monopoly on midwinter feasting. But it was better than last year's impenetrable 'Bad hair day?' campaign; and infinitely better than the Jurassic Park poster outside the local Baptist church. ('Jesus came to save a...Lost World.')

You can see what they are trying to do. Everyone celebrates Christmas, even if its only eating some frozen Turkey with their flatmates and watching their new Star Wars video in the afternoon. And many people associate 'Christmas' with the shepherds-and-wise-men nativity story which they remember from Sunday School, School Assembly, and Carol Service, and which they therefore associate indirectly with Religion. Woolworth's can put a Crib alongside the Tellytubbies without incongruity; you don't get Crucifixions in their displays of Easter Eggs. So trying to get people to think of religious services as a component of Christmas, just like Morecambe and Wise and the Queen's Speech, seems a fair enough tactic. It isn't a million miles away from those Romans who drew pictures of Jesus wearing Mithras's hat.

The draw back is, I actually went to church on Christmas Day.

The only reference to the story of the nativity was a 10 line reading from Luke, substituting 'feeding trough' for 'manger'. This struck me as inelegantly pedantic. The focus of the service was not on the Nativity, it never is. It was on the sacrament of opening Christmas Presents.

'I wonder', said the minister with a hideous grin, 'If anyone had any presents this morning.'

I stood up in my seat 'Stop baby talking me' I yelled 'I'm the youngest person here, and I'm 32.' But she didn't hear me, or ignored me. She had discovered a real, genuine child, hiding under one of the pews. It was persuaded to show the toy gun which Father Christmas had politically incorrectly provided it with. An older girl had obtained an Ankh necklace which the minister cleverly pretended that she thought was a Cross. And so, ponderously on.

'I expect you made a list. Did anyone make a list? Or perhaps your mummies and daddies thought very hard to decide what sort of a present it was you wanted. Your mummies and daddies love you very much and sent you exactly the sort of present you wanted. Now, did you know that God sent us a present at Christmas? And he loves us very much and knows us very well and sent us exactly the sort of present that we wanted. Can you think what present God sent us...'

There was also a dramasketch called 'C.V For A Saviour' and a 'carol', to the tune of 'Scarlet Ribbons', which commemorated the baby in the manger in these words:

Centuries of skill and science
Span the past from which we move
Yet experience questions whether
With such progress we improve.

How is it that I can be so deeply moved by a play put on in a secular theatre by a drama group who regarded the characters as purely mythical, but left so cold, so embarrassed, so downright angry by the attempts of clergy who actually (I assume) believe it?

 

Christmas is popular because of the presents and the food and the family-get-togethers; and that isn't wrong. And the church tries to use the popularity of Christmas to get people into their services; and that isn't wrong, either. Having done that, they'd look a bit two-faced if they came over all puritanical and said that dancing and fairy-lights were ensnarements of Beelzebub. So they hang up balloons and Christmas trees and fairy lights in their buildings, and give you mince pies and sing traditional songs; and none of that is wrong. But it's all pointless unless, once you're in your pew with your mince pie; and once you've ding-donged merrily on high, they knock you dead with the sense of wonder and awe and mystery and simple gob-smacking amazingness ('You see this baby? He made the universe.') that they are supposed to be celebrating.

Instead they bring the balloons and crackers into the church; and tell you that Jesus Christmas and Father Christmas Christmas are really the same thing and that pulling crackers is an appropriate way to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Once we had the Organist playing Jingle Bells and a deacon dressed as Santa reading the lesson. And they ask us (in so many words) to believe that when we are eating the turkey, we are in some sense (in a very real sense) celebrating the birth of Jesus; and that even people who do not call themselves Christians, by the fact that they are eating turkey, are acknowledging the importance of His birthday. In short, we can only get people into the church if we make sure that what happens in church will be the same as what is happening outside church. Which is as good a way as I can think of making sure that in 25 years time 'church' (as opposed to 'The Church') won't exist anymore.

In some cases, this sort of appropriation works okay. Secular spring symbols don't present any threat to the integrity of Easter; the Resurrection is (among many other things) a Spring Story. And we can swallow 'Good King Wenceslas' and 'In the Bleak Mid Winter' and the animals on their knees because Christmas is (among many other things) a Winter story. But it is not an Opening New Toys story, much less a Stuffing Yourself Silly With Pudding Story. (Who the heck decided we had to follow the biggest roast of the year with the heaviest dessert of the year?) The image of the Stable and the Inn Keeper may contradict the letter of the Gospel, but they're thoroughly in keeping with its spirit. But crackers and toys are about as far from the spirit of the story of the Incarnation as it is possible to imagination. The marking of a silent night, holy night is simply incompatible with the adoration of Almighty Santa.

I do not say that they could not co-exist: that we could not go to church in the morning and then have an almighty secular blow out in the afternoon. God doesn't mind us having a good time. I do say that the attempts to claim that the one is a form of the other are desperate, ludicrous and in the end, irreligious.

It is time for us to find a different day on which to mark the birth of the Messiah, and to give Christmas back to the pagans who, after all, bare the appalling responsibility of having invented it in the first place.

 

May I wish all my readers a very happy Epiphany.

 

 

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