Adventus: Late In Time Behold Him Come

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is probably my favourite Christmas carol. Not only is it sung to the same tune on both sides of the Atlantic (unlike Away In A Manger, Angels From The Realms Of Glory or It Came Upon A Midnight Clear), but the words are superb, full of meaning and truth.

This lyric, in the second verse, however, is on the face of it a little strange. How can God, the Lord over time itself, be late?

As part of a family that often struggles with punctuality, it’s somehow comforting that even the Lord of the Universe is being described as late, but that is, of course, not the precise meaning of “late” that’s being used here.

“Late” doesn’t solely mean “running behind schedule”. That’s absurd when applied to God, but it raises an important point about Biblical time. The Koine Greek language in which the New Testament was written has two words for “time”, and they have subtly different meanings. Chronos is the word from which we derive modern words like “chronology” and “chronometer” and “chronic”. It’s used for the regular progression of minutes, hours, days, weeks and years. Chronos time is the world of schedules and clocks and calendars. And though God works in chronos time, the most important events on Heaven’s calendar are scheduled with kairos time.

Kairos is the other Greek word for time, and it’s used for specific important moments and seasons that may or may not come regularly in chronos time. “The time of the Pharaohs” is kairos – a specific period, but you can’t exactly say that it began on March 22nd, 4004BC and lasted exactly 2867 years 92 days and 6 hours. “When I was young” is kairos time, and so is “When I grow up”. My kids think bedtime is kairos time, and keep trying to push it later and later.

The Bible uses the word kairos in verses like “At just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for us”. In essence, it’s used for “redemptive time”, if you like: the hidden schedule of God’s master redemptive plan that began in a garden and ends in a city. Kairos is why the Bible sometimes skips over hundreds or thousands of years of history or sometimes fails to mention contemporary rulers whom archaeologist and historians number among the movers and shakers of the world. They aren’t significant to kairos time.

It’s kairos time that encapsulates the Messianic prophecies that state that “in the last days” God would send Messiah. Kairos-wise, we’ve been in the last days since Bethlehem in about 4BC, and it’s this to which the lyric refers. All the waiting and expectancy is over. All the prophetic time through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, “Gideon, Jephthaih, Barak and the prophets” is finally coming to a head. The time of promise is here.

Celebrating the inauguration of the Last Days and the coming of the central figure of the entire Bible and of history itself right at the end of the calendar year seems especially apt. Late in the year (chronos) we celebrate the Advent of the One Whom God promised to send late in time itself (kairos).

It’s very nearly Christmas day now. All presents bought, all cupboards stocked, the house decorated and the lights twinkling. Last-minute details like final house-cleaning, gift-wrapping, thawing the turkey and placing presents under the tree are either completed or underway. Tonight the children hang up their stockings, tomorrow their excited anticipation is fulfilled.

Tonight, once more, we await expectantly. Tomorrow, we will unwrap the Gift.

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Adventus: O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is possibly the only well-known carol that’s specifically for Advent rather than Christmas itself, and its lyrics are particularly significant for my personal Advent season focus of this year.  It is, after all, “O Come Emmanuel“, chronicling in song the hope of God With Us in at least a tithe of all that means.

I thought we might look at the text of it a little bit:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirist by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease;
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That’s seven verses, so there’s quite a lot we could unpack here, and I’m not going to do much more than take a cursory overflight of the highlights, but let’s see what we can find, ok?

The whole thing is a prayer:  O come, God With Us.  The carol is translated out of Latin and is a modified version of the 8th-Century O Antiphons.   It’s written sort-of from the perspective of God’s Covenant people Israel, and has an interestingly Messianic-Jewish flavour for an antique Christian hymn.  Of course, Israel are symbolically standing in for all the Covenant people of God under both the Old Covenant and the New, and one could see it as a bit of an example of the Replacement Theology that was common in the mid-1800s when it was translated into  English, but I’m going to let that stand without comment.  One could equally choose to interpret the flow of the lyrics as exemplifying the theology of ingrafting.

The first verse focuses on what was then the most obvious feature of the state of the Jewish nation: exile.  Until 1945 they didn’t have a homeland.  And this is a good metaphor for our own spiritual state, especially as unregenerate.  We’re in exile, away from our heavenly home, cast out from Eden and the direct experience of the presence of God.  Signs of Him coming among us in all of His grace and majesty are lamentably few: here and there in the world, now and then in time.  A far cry from when we will finally be Home and the whole earth will be full of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  We want, we need, to come Home, to be with God.  O come, God With Us.

The second verse focuses it down onto what is perhaps the root of all problems.  “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”.  The Scriptures and our own experience make it abundantly clear that our problem isn’t simply that we’re exiled from the presence of a holy God, it’s that we’re dominated.  Unregenerate, we’re under the thumb of a tyrant worse than Hammurabi or Pol Pot: the Devil, father and inspirer of despots.  Even two thousand years after the Advent, dictatorships abound and true freedom often seems hard to come by.  Our fallen human nature having shrugged off the easy and light yoke of the Lord, we’re easy marks for the tyranny of the other spiritual power.

Verse three invites the Dayspring, the Source of light and joy, to “come and cheer/Our spirits by Thine Advent here”.  Because life in exile and under the tyranny of the World, the Flesh and the Devil is a pretty miserable existence.  This is also a reminder that the life of the Kingdom brought by the Baby Whose coming we celebrate isn’t some long joyless slog of battle and pain, as we try in our own strength to live lives worthy of the high call of God to which we have been called.  Christ is also the Dayspring, the One Who comes to cheer our spirits.  The one Who “light and life to all He brings”.  His light disperses the gloom and puts even death’s shadow to flight.  As is written:  “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men”.

Verse four addresses the Key of David, the One who opens and no-one can shut, Who shuts and no-one can open.  This is more or less variations on what has gone before, but the language of “make safe the way that leads on high” seems significant.  As someone that works in the dangerous field of heavy construction, I have to know about and be concerned for safety.  It’s a dangerous world out there; even doing things right isn’t safe by most measures.  But Jesus “makes safe” the way that leads on high.  This is not to say we will have a trouble-free path through the world.  The Bible is clear that this is a false hope.  But death cannot snatch us out of His grasp.  Even if this world in all its wickedness may kill us, we’re safe in His arms.

The fifth verse gets us into interesting territory.  We don’t like to think of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge, but He is that too, as well as Baby in the manger and Saviour on the cross.  His gound-level-up refocusing of the Torah’s requirements in the Sermon on the Mount amount to a new and higher law, that of love.  “Cloud and majesty and awe” may have been absent from that occasion, but for all that, the twin commandments that “sum up the Law and the Prophets” – love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself – are more complete and universal than the myriad individual requirements of the Old Covenant.

Not that we’re made righteous by obeying a Law – neither the Old Covenant’s law nor the New Covenant’s twin commandment – but we obey the commandment because we have been made righteous.

The penultimate verse focuses in on one of my favourite subjects: wisdom and knowledge.  It’s appropriate that it comes late in the sequence, after subjects like freedom from Satan’s tyrannyand an end to exile, because those are more fundamental problems for the human condition.  Other religions have ignorance as the base of the human problem: we don’t know what’s right.  If that were the case, a law, given by a prophet of some sort, would indeed be sufficient and we’d all more or less be Muslims.  But both the Bible and experience teach us that that’s not the case.  Knowing what is right, we do not do it, or at least, not very often, and we need a Saviour before we need Wisdom from on high.  But we do also need Wisdom.  It has been defined as “knowledge plus love”, which is as good a definition as most; the ability to discern the best thing to do.  “Order all things far and nigh”, the verse pleads; let Wisdom direct our steps and arrange our lives.  Instead of the chaos of our conflicting desires and counterproductive impulses, let there be a Divine order, a flow, a pattern.  Not a regimentation, necessarily, but a higher structure that allows freedom, in the way that democracy hinges on the rule of law and cannot exist without it.  “To us the path of knowledge show”, as a Guide, but more than that, “cause us in her ways to go.”  The gender here is interesting, because in Proverbs the divine personification of Wisdom is female.  God’s feminine side, as it were.

And so we come to the last verse.  “O come, Desire of nations, bind/In one the hearts of all mankind”.  And now we’re deliberately stepping beyond the Jewish nation to the Gentile world; “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same word in Hebrew.  In our current divided days this verse seems highly significant.  “Bid Thou our sad divisions cease/And be Thyself our King of Peace”.  A true peace of divisions subsumed in brotherly love, not an enforced Pax Romana or a papered-over peace based on ignoring the real differences between us.  All I can say to this is “Come, Desire of nations”.

Like any good classic hymn, there’s a huge amount of theological import here, and I find myself this year praying it in earnest.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Complete the work You have started in us!  Bring us on to completion in Yourself, bring about the final consummation of the great work of the salvation of the world!

Maranatha!

Adventus: Down Into Darkness

Something I do every year in the Advent season is to dial in my focus onto a particular aspect of the Christmas story.

Some years it’s been Mary and the incredible act of faith it took to react to Gabriel’s announcement with a simple “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according th what you have said”. The year after my eldest was born I found myself focusing on Joseph and what it must have taken to be a father to the Son of God. Some years it’s been the shepherds, some years the Magi. Last year it was the inherent contradiction and upside-downness of it all: while the world was focused on the rich and great, Tiberius Caesar, Governor Quirinius, Herod in his palace, the real story is two dirt-poor displaced persons and a baby being laid in an animal feeding trough to get him off the floor. And it’s this, not any humanly-great historical figure, who’s going to change the world.

This year it’s the Incarnation itself.

It’s not the first year I’ve focused on the Incarnation, but I wasn’t blogging the last time that was the case, so I get to talk about it all fresh.

This year, too, at least initially, my focus in a little diiferent to last time.

Last time I focused on the Incarnation it was the idea of Emmanuel, God With Us, the Lord of the Universe become a man like me.

This year it’s the idea of Jesus the Light coming down out of His heaven of light to take up residence in this dark world among all of our chaos and pain. The idea of descent, of coming down from the perfection which was His right into our darkness and mess.

The Incarnation isn’t completely unique to Christianity. Other religions, particularly Hinduism, have their gods taking on flesh and living among men. But what sets Jesus apart is the purpose of His taking on flesh. He’s not cavorting among lesser beings for His own amusement or because He wants something from us; it’s part and parcel of the Divine rescue plan.

If you’re trapped in a burning building with toxic air, having a set of instructions broadcast in to tell you where the fire exit is is all very well, but it’s less helpful than sending in fire fighters. When the air itself turns toxic with lack of oxygen and presence of all manner of chemicals, reason gets bent sideways and you can’t always rely on your thought processes. Neither can humans, unaided, get free from the sin that afflicts us and corrupts our minds so that we can save ourselves. And that’s what makes the Incarnation special: God is coming Himself to rescue us from the spiritual conflagration that we started.

“Down Into Darkness”

As an initial expression of this idea of God coming down into our mess, I built this LEGO model, in which I’ve tried to communicate the concept of the Light coming down into our darkness.

Not all that brilliant as a piece of art, perhaps, but I hope it gets its point across.

The Incarnation means God coming down into our darkness, living among all of the corruption and arrogance and cruelty and greed and indifference of which humans prove themselves capable every time it’s day. Perfect justice coming to live in an inherently unjust world. Grace being born among the graceless. Purity and light shining in the night of impurity.

More, it’s the beginning of the transformation of the world. Now that the Light has come, we don’t have to walk in darkness any more. We can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We don’t have to keep on acting like corruption is inevitable or that arrogant self-centred cruelty is just the way it is.

As Jesus Himself said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden; neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father, Who is in heaven.”

Trusting in Jesus isn’t just finding the fire escape; it’s also a call to action. We’re called to be lights, shining His Light, doing good in a corrupt and sinful world. Good works alone won’t save us, but as Jesus Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, we are called to incarnate His Incarnation, to be His vessels of grace. If we aren’t doing good, are we really incarnating the One who is Good?

At the end of a year which has seemed especially full of chaos and darkness and human mess, the idea of spending some time reflecting on the “true Light that gives life to everyone” coming into our dark mess of a world is a potent one.

Light, stepping down into darkness.

Maranatha.

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.