Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The True Meaning Of Christmas

There is a song; a carol, actually; a Christmas carol, to be absolutely precise, called “Et Barn Er Født I Betlehem". I thought it was a uniquely Norwegian piece, but a quick search on iTunes revealed versions in several Nordic languages, including an attempt in English by one Garrison Keillor. So 'Scandinavian', I think, is as narrow a label as we can put on it.

Whatever its origins, it’s fairly awful. So don’t feel too bad about having never heard of it before.

A child is born in Bethlehem
In Bethlehem
In Bethlehem
Something about rejoicing Jerusalem

I see no point in attempting a full translation. A good quarter of the words are archaic enough that they don’t make any sense to me anyway. Suffice it to say, it goes on and on about virgins, cribs, visitors from the East, something about a star, and blahdy blahdy blah for about 10 verses, each verse ending in a paradoxically mournful “hall-ehhh-luuu-jahhhhhh”.

So it’s your fairly standard Christian carol. Fair enough. God knows I love a good carol. Only this one is so mind-numbingly plodding and slow, with none of the soaring beauty of say “O Holy Night”, or the gentle lullaby hush of “Away in a Manger”, that it's damn near impossible to endure, let alone love. Nothing but lackluster and dull. Honestly, I can’t say enough about how much I hate this song.

Did I mention my kids know it? Would you believe me if I told you they like it, and sing it often?

Monday morning I’m in the kitchen making lunches for the smaller two before I send them off to barnehage. Elder Miss has long since left for school on the bus. Boy is sitting at the table rifling for the two thousand and first time through the Toys R’ Us Christmas catalog. Missy the Younger is sitting next to him, happily coloring in her Hello Kitty coloring book, mindlessly humming something decidedly atonal (thank you Grandma Gae). All is relatively quiet and peaceful. My mind has drifted past Christmas, past New Year’s, side-stepped January and February altogether, and is mulling over possible ways to wrangle together enough money to buy Mister the kayak he so desperately wants for his 40th birthday in March. Suddenly, Boy lets out a great, jubilant gasp. His chair, which he’s been teasing out on its back two legs whilst he browses, falls heavily forward and lands on all fours with a loud thud. He triumphantly plants a finger in the middle of the page he’s been looking at as if he’s just now, right here in this very spot, located the precise center and meaning of the entire universe, “Missy! Missy! Looklooklook! Et barn er født i Betlehem Right! Here! In the magazine!” And with out further ado, he launches into the song.

Missy, whose attention was caught with Boy’s gleeful snort of discovery, has dropped her crayon, leaned over the table to get a closer look, and is now droning a long, slow accompaniment to Boy’s song, “Hall-ehhhh-luuuu-jahhhhh, halllll-eh-luuuuuuu-jah, hall-ehhhhh-lu-jahhhh, hallelujahhallelujahhalleluuuuu-jahhhhh….”

Both continue to stare in transfixed wonder at the image on the page as they sing on and on…and on.

I had told the kids when we got them that these catalogues were sent out by Santa as a sort of preview of what his elves are working on. “These are the things you can choose from this year,” I said, “Santa says this is what’s available.” And I’ve flipped through them half a dozen times or so time myself. So I know, in that extra-special, extra-sensory way that mothers just know these things, that this is the item that has got Boy so excited.

I know they have a small Nativity set up at the pre-school. Since I’ve spent exactly zero time explaining the whole birth-of-Jesus, true-meaning-of-Christmas thing to my kids, I assume it’s the teachers at the school who have either used the Nativity to explain the song, or the song to explain the Nativity to them. Either way, I think it’s mildly interesting that the song and a random picture are so closely linked in their minds. It’s like one is the other to them. And I’m pondering this curiosity when Boy abruptly stops singing mid-verse to ask, “But Mom, why would Santa’s elves make a toy Jesus? Is it even allowed to play with the baby Jesus?”

What do you say to that? How do you even begin to answer that question? It’s a fantasy, wrapped inside a myth, cloaked in commercialism so profane it’s almost sacred. But how to you tell that to a 5 year old?


The Alpha Grandma said...

Oh, but I DO love that boy!! He's bi-lingual, bi-cultural, and now smart enough to catch the subtle nuances of the Santa/Jesus thing.

The Partial Godfather said...

Reason numbers 4 and 5 to have a dog.

Grace said...

'A fantasy, wrapped inside a myth, cloaked by commercialism...'
True about the cloaked part. I feel that like makeup, less is more, and if less focus were on the St. Nick facade, perhaps the "fantasy vs. reality" issue would be clearer to differentiate.

Because of the emphasis on Santa, kids identify any personage of "higher power" as equal to the others (i.e. Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, God, Jesus, Zeus, Superman,...) Without having separation of historical fact and fictional creation, it all becomes one big melting pot of "power identity", which has obviously affected our population.

To our emphasized extreme, Z wishes to meet Mary, Joseph and Jesus personally and have them over sometime for a play date. Hmmmm...
She knows of the Santa story and hooplah, but why ingrain it in to confuse her? Sugar coating Santa and emphasizing the real reason that Christmas began in the first place makes the separation much easier to explain and enjoy.

Of course, you, me and a bottle of wine would make this topic much more interesting, sista!

Love, T

GUITAR said...

Well it's that time of year again. Time for all good Americans to focus on what really matters. Not family, community, or world peace, but that national sacrament of late-stage capitalism known as Holiday shopping. Whether you do it online, or drag yourself to the mall amidst the sea of humanity scrapping and fighting for the latest must-have gizmo, rest assured that your actions are vital to the national interest. So I get out there and do my duty: Buy American. Be American. Shop till you drop, and remember, this is what it means to be a patriot!

Last week I found myself at the mall, passing a line of parents and their children, waiting to have a few seconds alone with Santa. You know Santa, right? The big white guy who only works one day a year and yet no one calls him lazy; the big white guy who exploits elfin labor in a sweatshop for no pay while his wife does all the housework, and yet no one calls him a slave master; the big white guy who invades millions of homes on Christmas Eve and yet, no one arrests him for breaking and entering. Yeah, that one.

Everyone knows Santa is a make believe entity for those who haven't figured it out yet -- is white, fat and jolly. It’s important you believe this; else you may not get what you wished for. Yo’ Sven, you might be in trouble with Santa for your colorful description of his helper in Norway. (crap-ass vagrant). Hum Bug!!!! Keep believing, it worked for you as a kid, and I’m sure Santa stays alive with your kids.

This all made sense until I passed the woman and noticed the holiday stationary and cards in her bag. The ones with the calming, soothing face of Jesus staring back at me. You know the Jesus I'm talking about right? The one with the pale skin, blue eyes, and rock-star good looks? Yeah, that one. The same Jesus that has occupied the minds of Western Christians for the last five centuries, ever since Michaelangelo was commissioned to paint his image, and used his lily-white cousin as the sitting model.

Oh shit, I've stepped in it now. Questioning the ethnic heritage of Christ himself. And you thought this was just gonna be a cute little diatribe about the commercialization of the Yuletide season? Au contraire, mon frere.

My wife and I have received many a Christmas card this season, and as always, the representations of Jesus that adorn many of them cast the Christian Messiah as nothing if not European. Now I know my gentile friends have that song, "A Child is Born in Bethlehem," but I never realized until now that they had meant Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Silly me, but I always had thought the Christ child was born in that part of the world we call the "Middle East," which, if we were being honest, we would easily recognize as basically a part of Africa, separated from the continent by the man-made Suez Canal. As such, the odds of him looking the way he does in churches across America are pretty much slim and none. But don't tell that to most of his followers: especially the ones who are white like me.

The suggestion that Jesus would have been dark-skinned (black in the admittedly non-scientific racial taxonomy of the United States), is about as blasphemous to most Christians as anything one could say. Of course, no one wants to admit their indignation at the notion, so they typically couch it in ecumenical platitudes like "it doesn't matter what Jesus looked like; it only matters what he did." OK, fine. I'm fine with that. I've always been one who thought Jesus said and did some pretty exemplary stuff, unlike what so many of his modern disciples say and do. So then, if it doesn't matter what he looked like then why not make him black? Again they insist, "no you don't understand, it doesn't matter what he looked like, it's what he did." And again I repeat, O.K., fine, if it really doesn't matter then let's make him black, or maybe a woman just for a year. Then you can change him back again if you really want to. No biggie No dice, and no takers. We go round and round, as white folks check their watches and try to figure out how they can leave the room without seeming to be rude.

Now I don't much care about the scriptural references myself, and far be it from me to insist on the infallibility of the Bible; but if the folks who do swear that every word of it has to be accepted as literal, don't also accept these descriptions -- which clearly contradict the imagery on the Christmas cards, or that of the nativity scenes one sees everywhere at this time of year -- then they are nothing if not hypocrites.

For those of you still reading, you'll either be laughing or fuming: if laughing, it's because you realize how silly the whitening of Jesus has been in this culture, and yet, how wedded we really are to that imagery; if fuming, well, it's because you think that somehow I'm being sacrilegious, or absurd. But I'm just reading what the good book says, and applying a little common sense and anthropology to the process.

So now that I have managed to piss everyone off, here's wishing you all a very merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Resplendent Ramadan, and Super Solstice. Now get out there and shop! And take that damned Swedish-looking angel off the top of your tree for God's sake!!!!

JEDA said...

I read the whole thing, thinking "Uh-huh, uh-huh. Righteous rant. Righteous rant. Ok. With you so far. Uh-huh. Uh-huh...." Then I got to the part where you said 'Respendent Ramadan' and I laughed and laughed.

You've got stuff to say Big D. You should get yourself your very own blog-thingy.