I read this over the weekend, as we were putting up our Christmas lights and Kick was asking easy-to-answer questions like, “What’s God?” and “WHEN was Jesus born exactly?” and other stuff Mom wasn’t real ready to talk about while shooing the cats off the weird evergreen bush we bought in 4 minutes because the tree lot was really really cold.
I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up—though perhaps it is better to do this now than the week before Christmas, when everything has been carefully prepared. But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.
I find debates between the religious and the atheist profoundly tiring, much like debates over which version of the afterlife is actually true, because both “sides” of this miss the damn point while they’re yelling at each other about being right. Religion is terrible, people are terrible, blah blah blah are we DONE, can we eat a figgy pudding and watch the Winona Ryder version of Little Women now please? Stop interrogating one of the few nice things we’ve all still got. There’s a way to talk about the harm done in the name of religion that still leaves us room for gingerbread cookies.
There’s no need for a war on Christmas, or over Christmas. In all seriousness, God’s poetry, not prose, and if you try to diagram a sentence on Him you’re gonna wind up pissing both of you off. It’s not about JESUS WAS REALLY BORN IN THE SUMMER, you can yell that at me all you want but it’s not going to stop making me want to lay down and take a nap. It doesn’t let God off the hook to say time doesn’t work for Him the way it does for us, that it’s not so much that He has a plan (He’s absolute shit at planning, worse than the Cylons even) as He doesn’t always think things through. And so we’re left to fill the gaps, with tales we’ve been telling since we were barely not-monkeys, looking up at the unknowable stars.
The story of the Nativity, the story of Christmas, isn’t about a manger. It never was; you’re debunking shadows. Kick has a book about the Nativity that pairs gospel verses with folk art paintings and it’s one of the more effective versions of the story I’ve ever seen: two or three tiny white wooly sheep and their shepherd, against the whole night sky.
I tell her, as we’re hanging lights at 5:30 p.m. and it’s already black as midnight: We do this because it’s dark and we want to let people know we’re awake. If the lights are on, they know we’re up, and they can come to us for help.
I tell her, as we’re putting the Nativity scene out and she’s asking about the Kings, that they brought gifts for the baby Jesus, and that’s why we give gifts at Christmas.
Our religions, our traditions, our holidays, aren’t rooted in fact. They’re rooted in need, the same human need that connects us all the way back to the days of dirt roads and traveling by donkey: A story of grace from unlikely beginnings, the first word of God told to the poor. We told the story about a stable because we needed to know that no matter where we came from, we could be kings.
That story can change without tearing one single bit of it down.
In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention. This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.
That’s the story we need right now: that in a time of violence and fear and otherness, there will be a place for us to rest. A roof over our heads, something soft beneath our bones. That it is humble, doesn’t matter. That it is poor, doesn’t matter. That it doesn’t look like what we think it looks like, that it isn’t the same as the story we’ve been promised, doesn’t matter.
The story is about a baby. About a child. About a king. And about all of us. We forget that, and focus on the inn and the animals, and we lose sight of the star.