As we gear up for another round of seasonal warmth and good cheer, it’s time once again to embrace what our culture calls ‘the true spirit of Christmas’. Most people define this as some anodyne wish for peace and goodwill, a result of the pressure to keep any religious content out of the festivities, springing from an ill-founded fear of offending other faiths. Meanwhile, Christians bemoan the growing separation between the real meaning of Christmas and the commercial activity which overwhelms it.
Remarkably, the historical Christmas story is rarely seen in popular culture. It’s part of our cultural backdrop, so it gets referred to, but rarely is it looked at in its own right. Even films about Jesus have tended to confine themselves to his ministry or the events leading up to his death.
One of the few that includes the nativity is 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. Classic seasonal fare, like A Christmas Carol, sometimes alludes to the first Christmas, but little more. In fact, C.S. Lewis criticised the much-loved Dickens tale for lacking interest in the nativity. So it will be interesting to see if it’s referenced at all in this year’s new animated 3-D version starring Jim Carrey, which brings the total number of film adaptations to 21.
Yet as far as I can discover, there has only ever been one English-language feature film specifically about Jesus’s birth: Catherine Hardwicke’s 2006 film, The Nativity Story. Another, Mary Mother of Christ, is in production for release next Easter, and a film version of the gospel musical Black Nativity is also in the works.
The nativity story hasn’t been told very often on television either, though there have been some notable examples, such as The Liverpool Nativity two years ago. And the world of pop music has only done slightly better, with a handful of Christmas singles over the years, most famously, Boney M’s ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ from 1978. Even Christmas cards have largely given up celebrating the events surrounding Jesus’s birth: less than 2 per cent of Christmas cards now show nativity scenes.
So where might people hear the narrative which is at the heart of Christmas? They’re unlikely to read it for themselves in the Bible, and, with church attendance in the UK declining, most will never hear it there either, although, the numbers of people attending at Christmas is increasing.
In all likelihood, most people will encounter the story in the form of school nativity plays, with all their attendant calamities. The comedy value of these performances was nicely exploited in The Flint Street Nativity a decade ago, while the new British comedy Nativity! also picks up on the seriousness with which adults approach them. Martin Freeman plays a teacher who is in intense Christmas-play rivalry with the local independent school. He raises the stakes by idly boasting that his ex-girlfriend, now a film producer, plans to turn his school’s production into a Hollywood movie.
Every year we hear about school nativity plays being dropped in favour of secular alternatives, on the basis that they are inappropriate in a multicultural society. Barring celebrations of Jesus’s birth is also highly offensive to Muslims, however. And as Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission pointed out a couple of years ago, the logic of schools celebrating Diwali but not Christmas is ‘baffling’.
It seems we need nativity plays as one of the few remaining ways in which people can encounter the story of Jesus’s birth. The trouble is that too often they end up trivialising the historical realities and perpetuating myths. This is partly because schools feel pressure to do something new and improved each year, and partly because the staff members responsible for them don’t always understand the historical reality.
So it’s no surprise that in 2007 the Theos think tank found that only around three-quarters of adults in Britain know the main elements of the Christmas narrative, such as Jesus being born in Bethlehem, and only 12 per cent know much about the details. A year earlier, a survey for CBBC’s Newsround found that only 44 per cent of British children aged 7–11 knew that Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Jesus.
Amazingly, many Christians have some wrong ideas about the story as well, perhaps thanks to those nativity plays. We trot out the line that Jesus was born in a stable, for instance, but that’s not what Luke’s Gospel says. Luke simply says that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. The Greek word translated ‘inn’ simply means ‘place to stay’ and refers to the guest room. Houses at the time had one main room, partly open to a stable on one side, and with a guest room on the other. Jesus was put in the manger between the main room and the animals, snug and warm but out of the way. Mary and Joseph would have been in the home along with members of Joseph’s family who were there for the census. Bethlehem was his hometown, and it’s utterly unthinkable for them to be refused hospitality.
The biblical narrative is obscured by layers of additions, as well as by commercialism. We need to work hard to strip them off and allow the astonishing truth of God stepping into our world as a human being to shine clearly once again.