Bloody Christmas: Holy Innocents

Part of the Christmas story we often gloss over, the story of Herod the Great’s butchery of children doesn’t sit well with our sanitised Nativities, much less our seasonal good cheer and feasting.

This is not something the kids will portray in church or school Nativity plays. It isn’t cute. It isn’t heartwarming. It isn’t even nice. It’s horrible.

With my personal focus this year on the hidden, inverse nature of the Good Story, though, it seems a timely reminder of what sometimes happens when human ideas of greatness meet God’s.

The Magi’s well-meaning attempt to find the One whose birth the star heralded in Herod’s court was the point of contact between the visible, public realm of the rich and powerful and the hidden, silent space of that which truly matters most. When the focus of the world was on the movers and shakers of the Empire and Judea – Caesar Augustus, Governor Quirinius, Herod the Great – on palaces like the Herodion, Jesus is born to a poor family at the bottom of the social ladder, in a backwater town in a conquered province.

Even the Magi got this part wrong. They were phenomenally well-informed otherwise, especially considering that they were almost certainly pagans – the term “Magi” referred to the astrologer-priests of the dualistic Persian Zoroastrian religion. They saw the star, realised it portended a King of the Jews who was so important in the Divine order that the proper response to His appearing was to worship Him, journeyed to Judea bringing gifts of prophetic significance, and then did the logical thing of going to the place you’d expect to find a King.

Herod the Great has come down to most of us as an evil sadist with a cruel and vindictive nature, largely because of his response to the Magi and their search, and yet history bestowed “the Great” on him. In human terms, he was. A builder of fabulous monuments, it was he who squared off the Temple Mount into its present walled shape, he who built the Herodion palace in the desert and raised up the mountain on which it sits, he who fortified Masada. A king ruling over a conquered province doesn’t get called “the Great” for no reason. In terms of the rulers of the day, he wasn’t even especially cruel. Ruthless, yes, but that is common to almost everyone who has ever risen to wield power.

And yet what we remember him for is the terrible crime of butchering children in order to try and secure his own throne.

In the liturgical calendar, the 28th of December is the commemoration of this terrible event. The feast of the Holy Innocents shows what happens when might meets right; in that it foreshadows the crucifixion and echoes Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew boys.

As part of the story of what we consider the most joyous and festive time of the year, it strikes a discordant note. Attila the Hun following hard on the heels of Saint Nicholas. Gift-giving-and-massacre.

It makes a sort of sense, though, when you consider that the Christmas Story is really an invasion.

Like the D-Day paratroopers, Jesus drops into a world behind enemy lines, the embodiment of God’s rescue plan to free the world from Satanic oppression. “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”. The point of the spear. The vanguard of Heaven’s liberating invasion. And of course, the devil makes his counterattack, with all the violence, pride and ruthlessness that is in him. Human kings ruling without reference to any Divinely-imposed limitations form the phalanx of the true oppressor, the self-aggrandising Herod does what any contemporary regime would have considered the proper thing to safeguard his throne and perpetuate his regime.

“Holy” Innocents might seem to be overstating the case, however. With the best will in the world, it’s difficult to attribute any real sense of true holiness to these nameless ones who were the bloody collateral damage of Herod’s ruthless moves against a threat to his power. Innocents, yes, but holy? Maybe a stretch.

Perhaps it’s not as out-of-line as all that, though.

I mentioned earlier that this was an example of what happens when might meets right, when naked power comes up against the holiness of Christ. A foreshadowing of the crucifixion, I said; another time when the might of human empires came down hard on the representatives of righteousness.

As those who are supposed to be the representatives of righteousness today, it’s uncomfortable reading. No-one wants to get squashed underfoot or horribly killed.

But if we’re to be true representatives of Christ, we have to continue to bear witness to the truth no matter what the enemy does. Sometimes we might even get killed. They killed the One we call Lord, after all.

This is what it means to be a martyr. The word literally means “a witness”; someone whose life bears witness to truth and righteousness no matter what the humanly-powerful are doing. We don’t take up the sword of might, we cling to the right no matter what.

In a sense, then, even these poor innocents caught in the crossfire are martyrs. Witnesses of what human greatness does to Divine greatness. Witnesses of the terrible consequences of a power-craving ruler faced with God’s unspoken Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparsin scribed over their reign.

Though it’s Matthew’s Nativity account that shows this event, it’s neither his, nor Luke’s, nor even John’s account from his Gospel that makes sense of it. No, for that you have to look at the Nativity account of the book of Revelation.

The scary, symbolic account of a woman giving birth to a son who will rule the nations, while a dragon waits to devour the child as soon as he is born. Of war in heaven, of the dragon attacking the rest of the woman’s offspring: Jesus’ fellow-sons of the Father.

A Christmas story it’s almost impossible to cutesify, which you’ll never see in a Nativity play, but a Christmas story nonetheless. Might meets right, the right triumphing not by meeting force with force, but by refusing to give up the right. Continuing to love even in the face of hate. Continuing to do what’s right when it would be so much easier to take up the enemy’s weapons.

A bloody Christmas story, yes, but one worth looking at every so often. Christmas is a lot more serious than we sometimes make it.

Americhristmas: The 10 Most Surprising Things About American Holiday Traditions

Christmas is one of the holidays with the most commonality between Britain and the US. We both encapsulate the Northern European traditions of trees and snow and reindeer and so on. But there are some surprising differences. Some of these that particularly flummoxed or amazed me when I first encountered them are as follows:

  1. What, no Boxing Day? American companies are rather Scroogelike in the amount of holidays, public or otherwise, that they give their employees. Whereas in England, the 26th is a public holiday as well, I was most distressed to learn that here in America I was expected back at work bright and early, fully functional and ready to be a productive little cog in the machine. Seriously, does anyone really expect to get much done on the day after the biggest holiday of the year? I get more time off for Thanksgiving than I do for Christ’s birth most years, and last time Christmas fell on a Saturday I got the Saturday off (it’s usually a workday for me) and that was it. Conservatives moan that “companies can’t afford it”, but given the bonuses they pay their executives, I’m more convinced it’s “won’t” than “can’t”. Very surprising, and unpleasantly so.

  1. Food Differences. The familiar mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake don’t really exist here, but make room for cookies. Hundreds of the things, sugared, iced and cut into seasonal shapes. The potatoes served with the turkey are likely to be mashed, not roasted (you people have no idea what you’re missing), the turkey might get deep-fried, and the green vegetable accompaniment is beans, not Brussels sprouts. Chocolate coins in the Christmas stocking isn’t the done thing, but candy canes hung on the Christmas tree might be.

  1. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Top of my personal list of “what on earth were you thinking?” foods, this one is so weird it needs its own category. Sweet potato was a nonexistent vegetable in my growing up, and I really wasn’t sure about something that had the consistency of stringy regular potato but a sweet flavour. But to mash it up and bake it in a pan with marshmallow on top, and then insist that it belongs on the same plate as turkey? No, you people are strange. I like you, but this food crosses too many boundaries for me. I’d never even suspected the existence of a food (not a condiment like apple sauce with pork or cranberry sauce with turkey, but a food) that was sweet but a “dinner” food and not a dessert. That’s a line I don’t personally cross. Like your weird jello salads, this I’ll pass on.

  2. HanukChristKwanzFestivus. When I first arrived in the States, I hadn’t yet tumbled to what inveterate particularists Americans are. When I was growing up, Christmas was Christmas. I’d vaguely heard of Hanukkah by the time I moved to the States as an almost thirty-year-old, but other than that it was a Jewish festival around Christmas time, I didn’t know anything about it. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a very high profile in the country of my birth. Jews, and even Muslims, are as likely to wish you a happy Christmas as anyone else. But what on earth’s a Kwanzaa? A Festivus? Come on; you’re making these up. Kwanzaa, I’m informed, is essentially Christmas for black people who think Christmas is too white and European; Festivus is Christmas for militant atheists. This is America. Everyone’s got to have their own holiday catering specifically to them. Now, I understand that if you’re Hindu you probably want to celebrate Diwali rather than Christmas, and if you’re a Jew you probably want to celebrate Hanukkah. But these have an actual history and don’t seem to be fabricated out of whole cloth simply because we like having a holiday and there are things we object to about the majority one. I guess the early Christians’ adoption of the Saturnalia for Christmas was something like this originally, but given the basic nonexistence of Kwanzaa in the UK and the very definite existence of a thriving black and African community, I wonder whether stuff like Kwanzaa is really as “African” as it’s claimed.

  3. Musical Differences. I talked about this last post, but it’s worth mentioning again. The carols have different tunes in many instances (Away In A Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels From the Realms of Glory, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear). The secular music is totally different. And there are some different carols, too. I was particularly surprised by Angels We Have Heard On High, which has our tune for Angels from the Realms of Glory (mostly) but different words, and the complete absence of Once In Royal David’s City.

  4. There’s No Such Thing As Tacky Decorations. Whether it’s the tree or the house, American notions of proper decorating are like themselves: bold, loud, overpowering and individual. Nothing is so cheesy or tacky that some American won’t put it on his front lawn, whether the 12ft tall inflatable Nativity scene, the dinosaur Santa giving presents to all the little T-rexes, the zombie Santa, the upside-down Santa that hangs by a toe from the gutter, or whatever else. Coming from a part of Britain that was relentlessly middle class and the last thing anyone wanted to be accused of was of being tacky, it was rather surprising. Tree ornaments are similar. No-one would make patriotic or state (if we had them) tree ornaments in Britain, but you see them all the time here, blazoned with the Stars and Stripes, or the Confederate flag if you’re of a mind, or football teams, TV shows, whatever. Express yourself. It’s the American thing to do, and if anyone doesn’t like it, it’s the American thing that they can kiss your… Ahem.

  5. So few Christmas cards. Ok, Britain goes a little overboard with Christmas cards. You get them from everyone, and you’re supposed to give them to everyone. They make special Christmas card display hangers that you can pin up to 100+ cards to apiece, and people regularly need several per room in their house. Think US valentine cards, raised to the power of ten and at Christmas time. And when I say everyone gives them to everyone, I mean it. I got Christmas cards at school from kids with names like Anwar Islam and Rakesh Patel. But we didn’t usually send or give cards to immediate family. By contrast, my wife’s family did cards for one another, and a few closer friends and church people, and that’s it. As my family know, I’m particularly disorganised about cards, and at $2 a card to mail them internationally, it gets expensive, but I always feel particularly guilty that I’m not doing it right, no matter what we do.

  6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Movie. Yes, I mean the 1964 vintage one. We all know the song, even in the wilds of Britain, but not only had I never seen the film (still haven’t, in fact), I had never even suspected its existence. This “classic” American Christmas film apparently has a distinctly North American audience; it hasn’t been shown on British TV that I know about or remember any time in my life of fortysomething years. This, Frosty the Snowman (which I’ve never seen either), and a couple of others I don’t recall off the top of my head are basically unknown. We have our own Christmas TV classics (The Snowman), but typically what I recall being shown on TV on Christmas day were popular mainstream films like The Empire Strikes Back. Of the classic American holiday films, I’ve seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and maybe a couple of others. “Classic” for me is sometimes code for “not watchable on merit; needs added nostalgia”.

  7. Eggnog. To go from a country in which it’s a marginal, slightly strange alcoholic cocktail involving real eggs (at least, that’s what I thought “egg nog” was when I got here) to a country in which it’s a vanillaish creamy soft drink demanded by the masses and used as a flavouring in seasonal chocolates and stuff is fairly eyeblinking. I’d never drunk eggnog of either incarnation before I moved to the States. To hear what I always thought was an alcoholic drink craved loudly by my resolutely teetotal father-in-law was something of a shock. Eggnog is big business here, consumed by the pint and lapped up with relish. I don’t personally care for it; you can have my share. But how in demand it is and how much a Christmas flavour it’s considered to be here was certainly surprising.

  8. We Wish You A Sober Christmas. America has its share of holiday drinking, but it seems to be of things that would be drunk anyway, like regular beer or wine. There seems little of the holiday sherry or the alcohol-soaked desserts or the mulled wine that you have to prepare or buy specially. Hot apple cider in the US means warmed spiced apple juice, not the alcoholic drink that is the only meaning of “cider” in the UK. American Christmas is designed for kids, so there’s no alcohol on show, there’s masses of sugar, and everything is very G-rated (U or Uc, in British film classification parlance). Britain’s a bit more European; alcohol is a part of life and we don’t feel any particular need to hide it from our children. The sooner they treat it as something to drink sensibly, but just something to drink, the better off they’ll be. Including at Christmas, with our sherry and our mulled wine and our brandy-soaked Christmas puddings that you set alight at the table, and our brandy butter. We’re really not a nation of alcoholics, but alcohol is definitely more embedded into the Christmas festivities than it is in the US.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten a few, but those are the main ones that caught me out. Enjoy your Christmas preparations; I’m back to mine.

I Saw Mommy Wedgie Santa Claus

It’s a source of some amazement to me how different the typical US and British Christmas music playlists are.

I’ve talked on Facebook about how so many of the traditional church carols have different tunes in their transatlantic incarnations, but it doesn’t stop there. The secular Christmas music is even more dissimilar.

In Britain, there’s a long-standing tradition of popular bands producing new annoying earworm songs specifically for Christmas, and the national pop music No. 1 on Christmas Day is usually something seasonal and absurd.

There’s a fairly extensive repertoire of these things, stretching from the awful 1970s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day through the Pogues‘ song croaked out by their lead “singer” who sounds like the drunken sot he is, right up to the present day. Stop the Cavalry. Mistletoe and Wine. Last Christmas (which the radio stations around here in Texas seem to have unaccountably latched onto this year and which needs to have all copies burned). These are mostly what the radio stations and shops play in the UK.

American radio stations mostly don’t.

Secular Christmas music sounds like it mostly stopped in about 1954 and to be focused on the Frank Sinatra/Perry Como/Gene Autry era. White Christmas (which is probably the best-known of these in the UK because it occasionally gets played there). Have a Holly Jolly Christmas. Let it Snow. Winter Wonderland.

Even the songs that are technically more recent are often more contemporary artists doing covers of these antiques.

Few of these songs get much airtime in the UK, so it makes Christmas music sound dramatically different.

Not worse; as far as I’m concerned most of the UK’s Christmas playlist could cheerfully be consigned to the Abyss. But not any better, either. Let it Snow is, if possible, even sillier in Texas than it is around London. Dreaming of a white Christmas is fairly futile when there’s an even-money chance of T-shirt weather on Christmas Day. Or it may be 15 degrees Fahrenheit and blowing a howling gale out of the flat part of the States, with nary a mountain between here and the North Pole to slow it down. You never can tell with Texas.

Initially the American Christmas playlist was a nice change of pace. A bit weirdly stuck in the past (it seems the irony of ironies that I, as a Brit, am saying this about America), but nice. Inoffensive. Twee.

My wife says Americans don’t have this word, but it’s a useful one. It’s a bit like cute with a heavy dose of old-fashioned and a side order of prim as well as the saccharin. Offensively inoffensive.

And it describes American Christmas music so perfectly.

This is the music of the age that American conservatives idolise, before the devil Rock’n’Roll took over the country. Some of it’s goodish. Most of it’s just bland. Some of it, though, takes some decidedly bizarre twists.

Like the line in It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year about “There’ll be scary ghost stories”. I’m sorry, but what in seven types of crap does that have to do with Christmas, religious or secular? Halloween, maybe, but Christmas? What kind of weird person would consider that enough of a Christmassy thing to reference in a seasonal song?

Or Here Comes Santa Claus, with its strange blurring of the lines between the secular and the religious. “Let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight”. This is weirdness. Those of us who do give thanks to the Lord above for Christmas aren’t doing it because Santa is coming, but because Jesus already came. And those who are focused exclusively on the secular icon of Christmas are probably not going to be giving thanks to the Lord above. It’s an utterly odd song.

Oh, occasionally something more recent shows up. Pentatonix and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra are usually played somewhere, and welcome. TSO’s version of Carol of the Bells is one of the few worthwhile versions of this irritatingly repetitive carol, though Christian radio needs to get over its obsession with Mary Did You Know?  And I suppose I have to mention The Carpenters, who were 1970s but share the same animating tweeness as all the other American Christmas songs.

I shouldn’t really object too loudly. I could be back listening to the endless I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and Last Christmas loop track the UK seems to have. But it does get rather wearing to have the same six or seven songs played again and again and again.

This year, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus seems to be one of the endless loop-track selections in these parts. And when you find yourself loudly singing along “I saw Mommy wedgie Santa Claus!”, it may be time for the radio station to find a new song.

I can’t change the station. All the others are doing it, too. Can we have a little more diversity in what gets played, please?

Purple

On the traditional Advent crown or Advent wreath, the first three candles are purple, colour of royalty and, we are told, penitence.

The association with royalty is familiar and fairly obvious. Until the creation of modern artificial dyes, purple was one of the rarest and most expensive dyes to produce, made from the shells of a particular kind of sea snail at a ratio of shells-to-dye that would make an economist wince.

Accordingly, it was the colour habitually worn by Roman emperors, and various sumptuary laws down the centuries have restricted the wearing of purple to royalty or the uppermost classes.

But purple is a strange colour to represent penitence.

I would personally have thought that brown, grey or black would be penitential colours, representing sackcloth, ashes and mourning.

But no; penitence is symbolised by purple.

It’s a more pleasing colour to look on than brown or grey or black, especially in a candle, but is there more to it than that? After all, if we were used to black candles in the Advent crown, purple would probably look weird.

On closer reflection, purple might be a better colour to represent penitence than I first thought. Penitence is different from sorrow or mourning. Not only is mourning broader than just mourning over sin, but you can feel sorrow for your sins without necessarily exhibiting repentance.

It’s like political apologies in which a public figure expresses “regret” over some indiscretion or other; this is all too often a minimal expression of sorrow over the consequences, not a changing of heart and mind over the decisions that produced them.

Even worse is when it’s an “I’m sorry I got caught”, but most of the time that doesn’t even qualify as regret.

Penitence is what the Bible calls “Godly sorrow” – the sorrow for sin that produces real repentance. And it’s purple because it’s productive, not empty.

It’s not the brown of self-flagellation or deliberately-inflicted discomfort as an attempt to somehow pay the penalty yourself. It’s not the grey of ashes or a burned indication of unpleasant consequences, nor the black of empty space and the open grave.

No; penitence is a living purple.

The association of royalty together with penitence may be an instructive one, too. The essence of repentance is agreement with God that you are in the wrong, and throwing yourself on His mercy.

The mercy of the King.

Symbolically, the dispensing of justice and mercy is one of the prime attributes of kingship; only a just sovereign can display real mercy, because if there is no justice then not getting what you deserve is just randomness or whim. Mercy tempers justice, because without compassion there can be no justice; it is a royal quality to show mercy.

Associated with this, magnanimity is another symbolic attribute of kingship. The giving of gifts is a royal prerogative; the greater the King, the greater the gifts. God’s grace is without limit because His Kingship is without limit. And the same with mercy. As Shakespeare put it, “the quality of mercy is not strained”, given by the ocean not the dropper, because God really is that great a King.

Royalty and penitence, meeting in mercy. As we approach the birth celebration of the King who is the atoning Sacrifice, purple may be more appropriate a colour than I thought.