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A Critic Writes: The vital significance of Third Sheep in the Nativity

NativityWe consider that we know what makes a nativity, but do we really? Despite the apparent simplicity of the concept, it’s obvious to clever people like me that this story is a multi-layered intertextual phenomenon. There are layers upon layers, layers within layers, and layers next to layers but at a slight angle. There is nothing simple about it.

Every element of the story is vital to making it the enduring phenomenon it is. Some of these have a direct, functional role – Jesus needs parents, who in turn need transport and somewhere to stay, and no birth would be complete without people popping in uninvited and giving you impractical gifts you didn’t ask for. But other roles are far more significant and symbolic. Read More…

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Was Good King Wenceslas a complete idiot?

Good morning, St Stephen’s Day. Apparently, St Stephen is patron saint of headache sufferers among other things, which is presumably something to do with his association with Boxing Day. But the Feast of Stephen is most commonly known as the date when Good King Wenceslas looked out.

Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia in a less welcoming mood

I’m happy to let a lot of strange things go in carols, but Good King Wenceslas is more or less a complete and detailed story about a supposed event, and it bothers me, because I don’t think it makes any sense at all.

The King looks out of his castle, and sees a peasant gathering winter fuel, or firewood in other words. So far, so simple. But when he asks his page who the man is, it gets very weird. Apparently, he lives miles away, “right against the forest fence”. So why would he walk “a good league” to gather firewood in the vicinity of the castle when he has such a fine supply on his doorstep? It just doesn’t make sense. Read More…

Do Christians actually want people to celebrate Christmas?

The Church of England is making a special effort to promote the Christian message of Christmas this year, with a bizarre campaign to live-tweet their Christmas sermons. It’s not clear what this is meant to achieve, although it appears that evangelism is a part of it.

The significance of the occasion is being asserted (or possibly assumed) with the cumbersome hashtag #ChristmasStartsWithChrist. Whether or not this is the intention, it’s reminiscent of claims that “Jesus is the reason for the season” or some such, looking like the latest salvo in the ongoing battle to plant a cross in the middle of a significant date and claim it for the church. Apparently, the day gets its name from Jesus, so it’s a solely Christian occasion.

This is a dangerous line of argument for the church to adopt, as Sunday starts with Sun, from which the day gets its name. So by the same reasoning, the church should recognise that Sundays are pagan occasions and stop imposing their own weekly celebrations on someone else’s day. Read More…

Christmas – Dontcha just love/hate it?

I love Christmas.
I love the excuse for a really huge celebration.
I love thoughtful surprises and getting things that I really wanted, and I love giving presents that I know they’ll love.
I love the building anticipation as the day itself approaches, and the sense of a huge corporate festival. Read More…

I’ve become everything I hate

Or hated, at least.

Today, I’m attending a carol service, and I’ll be in church again on Christmas Day. I don’t want to have anything to do with the church in general, but I’m quite happy to turn up for high days and holidays. I used to be scornful of people like that – people like me, I suppose. Either you believe it or you don’t, I thought – why would you reject those beliefs and still turn up on big occasions? But there’s a strong element of culture and tradition that I can’t easily shake off, and I’m a real sucker for a good carol.

It’s around this point that someone usually complains that I shouldn’t enjoy carols unless I accept the theology contained in their lyrics. How can you lustily sing along to something that’s making claims you completely reject? If I like carol singing, I must either be in denial about my beliefs, or a plain old hypocrite. It’s an argument that’s superficially convincing, but no more than that. Read More…

Christmas is different

I sometimes find I can see a lot of sense in what church leaders have to say, and I sometimes find myself in broad agreement with Richard Dawkins, but it’s not often that I find myself agreeing with both on a single issue. This is one of those cases, because I really like Christmas. It’s hardly surprising that senior members of the church agree with me there – it’s a very literal example of a “Pope found to be Catholic” story – but finding out about Dawkins’ views seems to surprise a lot of people. I’m not all that surprised, though, because I seem to view Christmas in a very similar way. Read More…

The evil of Christmas trees

Okay, I’m basically not a very nice person in many ways, and I’m all too aware of my many faults, but this year, my conscience has been pricked after being pointed towards the words of Jeremiah:

This is what the LORD says:

“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.

That seems like a pretty clear denunciation of Christmas trees to me, and prophetic as well, seeing that it was written about 600 years before Jesus was even born. The question is, how much wiggle room is there? Read More…

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