“What’s your favourite Christmas song?”
“Fairytale of New York”.
“No . . . I mean from a Christian perspective”.
I thought for a moment, then responded,“Fairytale of New York”.
It is the only song that captures the horribleness of Christmas.
The radio advertisements are cringeworthy. A shopping centre in Carlow offers listeners everything they need for their best Christmas ever, presumably it must have a franchise for bringing back from the dead those who have tragically died; while a shopping place in Kildare offers massive discounts on lots of ‘labels’, driving you to ask why, if the stuff is so desirable, it’s now for sale at knockdown prices in a shopping centre in a small Irish town.
The songs are even worse. ‘Driving home for Christmas’ captures that sense of the holiday as some sort of American dream, except they only get one day of holiday, so presumably 24 hours later he could be singing, ‘Driving back to work after Christmas’.
RTE Radio’s history programme asked last Sunday whether the whole thing was the creation of Charles Dickens, there was a feeling that the Victorians took something that had been a celebration for poor people (as much about midwinter as anything religious) and built a whole culture around it, sentimentalising the religious element in the process.
Being honest, Christians who don’t have some sense of Christmas being horrible haven’t read their Bibles. Look at the story. Look at Luke’s telling of it. The child is born in a dirty byre. Does anyone staging a Nativity Play ever take seriously what it really meant for a teenage girl to give birth to a baby in a cowshed? Does anyone ever try to imagine the fear and the grimness of the moment?
And who turns up? Shepherds. Shepherds were not people you would invite to your Christmas party; they were rough, they were unclean, you would have smelled their presence.
And what about Matthew’s account? King Herod having babies butchered; do you ever hear that bit when the kids in silk robes and paper crowns are making their appearance while the congregation sings ‘We three kings’.
How many Christians really take the Christmas story with any degree of seriousness. The narratives have been conflated and diluted with large measures of sentimentality and materialism
Do I believe the Christmas story?
Yes, because it’s not something anyone would be likely to make up; if you were making something up, it would be a lot more impressive than scenes containing rustic Judeans and esoteric foreigners.
Why ‘Fairytale of New York’?
Because it has an irrational optimism about it; a bit like the real Christmas story.
As long as it’s not Ronan Keating singing it.
(Or would that add authentic misery?)
I heard an interesting discussion about Christmas on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme yesterday. It started about the “attack on Christmas” by some UK local authorities who ban references to Christmas. One speaker pointed out that Christmas was under threat from Christians rather than UK local councils. He pointed out that Christian leaders like George Bush and Tony Blair had ignored the message of the Prince of Peace by startng wars that have led to the deaths of more than i million people; Christ overturned the tables of the money lenders in the temple while today the churches are silent on the activities of bankers and the damage they have done to people’s lives – especially the poorest who have to pay for the excesses of the protected elite.
Of course, the speaker was the humanist guest on the programme.