When God gets carried away

When God gets carried away

KATY GERNER learns how the evolution of the festival of Christmas displays the risky course of Incarnation in the world. Even if the magic and mystery deteriorate in the modern age, the process leaves reminders.

For those who lament the commercialisation of Christmas, Professor Donald Heinz, in his latest book, reminds us thatpeople have always tried to spoil its sacredness.
Indeed, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

In Christmas Festival of Incarnation (Fortress Press), Heinz takes his readers back and forth in time, pointing out that, whether as a total immersion in divinity or in consumerism, God gets carried away at Christmas.

Heinz, Professor of Religious Studies at the California State University, tells of early Christians listening to Matthew and Luke read in public worship; Mary’s song being set to trumpets and kettledrums by Bach; Christmas pageants in the Middle Ages; Saint Francis constructing a live manger scene in an outdoor setting in the fourth century; the influence on Christmas celebrations following the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the Western capitalist Christmas that we cope with/enjoy heartily today.

He provides the reader with lots of information: the date of the first Christmas card, the symbolism of lights and Christmas trees, the origin of various Christmas carols, the types of gifts given and the food served throughout the centuries; and Christmas rules, such as the one allowing clergymen to dance to carols as long as they don’t lift their feet off the ground.

He also provides a vital piece of information, something 20th century women have long sought an answer for: Why are women in charge of gift giving?
Heinz’s theory is that it is because women are the “appointed custodians of relationships and the guardians of kinship ties”. Well it is a nicer theory than most women nurse during Advent.

Personally, I have discovered a soul sister in 19th century author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who Heinz quotes as saying, “Christmas is coming in a fortnight and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious. Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.”

Christmas: Festival of Incarnation also includes short descriptions of some of the bigger players in Christmas history: the Magi and the shepherds, Saint Nicholas of course, Befana (the Italian equivalent), Martin Luther, who introduced the Protestant Christmas, and even the Grinch “who stole Christmas”, if only temporarily.

Heinz writes with dry wit about bad behaviour at Christmas. He writes of children “nearly behaving”, revellers in the 11th century who made so much noise outside the church that the priest could “scarcely celebrate Christmas Mass”, a 12th century priest who began Mass by singing an amorous song, monks rebuked for going on “frivolous holiday pilgrimages” and a 17th century comment on the prohibition of Christmas by the Puritan government: “O blessed Reformation! The church doors all shut, and the tavern doors all open.”

Heinz also writes of truly unjust behaviour at Christmas, such as the delay of land reform in the south for American blacks at the end of the civil war. An announcement was sent from Washington that nothing was to happen during Christmas.

Christmas was also a time of hiring staff cheaply and firing them after the holidays, particularly if they had asked for a pay rise.

Heinz includes photographs of Christmas art and craft in the centre of the book and explanations of their origin and meaning.

My favourites include a 15th-century nativity scene where musicians serenade the baby Jesus, the Metropolitan Museum’s Christmas tree (truly a work of art), a 19th-century depiction of American Christmas celebrations (with a tree with glowing candles and a family and their dog rollicking around it), and a medieval reliquary.

For those of you who don’t know what reliquary means — and I didn’t — it is a container where sacred relics are kept. The one I liked was a beautiful shrine from medieval times, which is now kept in the cathedral in Cologne in Germany.
Christmas: Festival of Incarnation is well researched and a wonderful mixture of culture anthropology, sociology, theology and history.

However, I did find one tiny error which will cause distress for devotees of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Heinz’s writes about the Christmas when the March girls gave their Christmas breakfast to a poor family with fatal consequences. But … it was not Amy, the youngest daughter, who caught small pox after delivering their Christmas meal to the poor family.

Amy was extremely vain. The fuss she would have made if her beautiful skin was marked by small pox would have filled several chapters of Little Women.

It was actually Beth, the second youngest daughter, who caught scarlet fever, not smallpox, and she didn’t get it that day but later on when she continued to help the family.

Still it was an interesting point about good deeds not always being rewarded justly.

In any case, I recommend Christmas Festival of Incarnation for both lovers of Christmas and people who begin muttering in October about the commercialisation of Christmas. It is a fascinating book.

Katy Gerner’s favourite season is Pentecost because she only has to wear red and tell the Pentecost story to her Sunday school class. Her hope for the future is that stores never find out about Pentecost. She belongs to the tribe who mutter about the commercialisation of Christmas in October.

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