The war on Christmas has become a reason for controversy again. Many are upset that some retail stores have directed their staff to avoid saying, “Merry Christmas,” and have opted for more inclusive language. Some religious leaders decry the ban on religious music in public schools and nativity scenes on public lawns. The real story of Christmas IS being ignored by the world. This is not new. The story has been changed, twisted and attacked since the beginning. It is a story that the world is not comfortable with…and rightly so.
Unlike the feel-good, sweet, sentimental holiday movies which get replayed and replayed year after year, the real Christmas story is not a very pretty one.
The real Christmas story is not a tale for children. It takes place in a land ruled by a foreign government, governed by corrupt religious leaders and by edicts enforced by fear. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the place where their family originated. Was this an attempt to weed out people who were living where they weren’t supposed to be? Was it an attempt to determine people’s ethnicity or political leanings. Was it simply an exercise in intimidation?
Mary and Joseph, in spite of Mary’s late term and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, travelled a long distance over dusty roads on foot or, at best, on a donkey. When they got to Bethlehem they found themselves homeless and without the help of Mary’s relatives and the family’s midwives when she gave birth to her first baby. As a mother, I can only imagine how frightened this teenage girl must have been. We depict the stable where Jesus was born as a brightly lit, pleasant barn, full of golden straw and freshly groomed animals. Most barns, even well kept ones, are not cozy. Animals smell and are dirty, even if they are well cared for. Who of us would opt for giving birth in a barn and using a feed bunk for a crib? Such accommodations would only be used at the point of desperation. Was it cold and dark? Did Mary and Joseph have enough to eat in their homelessness? How long did they have to live in the barn? Did Joseph find work?
Supernatural beings showed up, telling the shepherds about the baby. The scruffy, unkempt companions of sheep ran to visit this new king-baby. No shower. No change of clothes. I know what they smelled and looked like. They were not the kind of visitors a mother would be excited to have breathing on her brand new baby.
The story of the wise men is one of international intrigue.They were lied to by the authorities when they asked for directions. They were encouraged to report back to Herod when they found the new King. When an informant (an angel) told them that Herod meant to harm the new king and they slipped away by another direction after visiting baby Jesus.
Then the story gets really nasty. This part of the story is often ignored or skipped in the telling. Herod, afraid he was about to be deposed, launched a campaign of infanticide, killing all baby boys under the age of 2. I can hardly imagine the horror which would result from such an edict. To save the life of their baby son, Mary and Joseph fled their homeland to become refugees in the land of Egypt. They didn’t return to their home for years.
This is not a pretty story. It is not at all similar to the tales of “Christmas magic” that flood our airwaves. It has nothing to do with the generic, feel good script of holiday movie. It is a story of fear, poverty, homelessness, deceit, terror and murder.
The rest of the story of Jesus’s life is just as difficult. His cousin and friend John the Baptist was beheaded for preaching about him. Jesus was harassed, discredited and eventually executed. He preached passive resistance against domination and persecution. He hung out with women, tax collectors and other undesirables. He advocated for the poor and the powerless. He called into question the entitlement of the rich and powerful. He made the people in power uncomfortable. His life should make us uncomfortable as well.
We wage our own war on Christmas if we make the stable, the animals, the shepherds and the wise men too pretty. We miss the point if we ignore the poverty of Jesus’s parents or if we skip the acts of the murderous king who forced them to become refugees in a foreign country. Making the story magical and sweet ignores the importance of the Christmas story. It trivializes the sacrifice and lessons of Jesus’s birth, life and death. One cannot appreciate Christmas without Easter.
I don’t spend energy worrying about the “war on Christmas” or if Starbucks’ disposable coffee cups have “Merry Christmas” printed on them. I struggle with my own understanding of the Christmas story. I reread the tale and struggle with it’s messiness, violence and discomfort. Only then can I begin to understand the good news of the rest of the story. “For God so loved the world…”