'One's True Love' is costly. One Partridge in a Pear Tree $105; two Turtle Doves $40; three French Hens $45; four Calling Birds $400; five Gold Rings $325; six Geese-a-Laying $300; seven Swans-a-Swimming $4,200; eight Maids-a-Milking $410; nine Ladies Dancing $4,580; ten Lords-a-Leaping $4,040 [ladies are more expensive!]; eleven Pipers Piping $2,050; and twelve Drummers Drumming $2,220. Total: $18,350. Traditional Christmas, with poultry, people, and pear trees, is not cheap!
The twelve days of Christmas begin at midnight Christmas Eve and conclude at midnight Epiphany Eve. It's a time of merrymaking and feasting. Wonderful! This is the time when you are meant to sing Christmas carols and have your tree up. However many of us bring out the tree and crank out the carols as early as November. Not that I mind elongating a decent party, it's just that by starting Christmas so early the season of introspection, Advent, gets swamped and sunk. Without taking time to pause and reflect, the meaning of Christmas can be drowned, along with our own souls.
Take “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. On the one hand it's a pleasant holiday nonsensical ditty. Not unlike tinsel, Santa, and reindeer in downtown Auckland! On the other hand it has a more profound meaning. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in 16th century England by a couple of wily Jesuits who were playing a dangerous game. Anything Roman Catholic was prohibited and, if found out, was punishable by imprisonment and death. As a result the Roman faith was forced underground. Still there was, as you can imagine, a need to encourage and teach fellow believers. So these Jesuits came up with a code, and set it to music.
The twelve days of Christmas is the time period. “My true love said to me” is God speaking to the anonymous Roman Catholic. “Twelve lords-a-leaping” are the twelve beliefs outlined in the Apostles Creed. The “eleven pipers piping” are the apostles, minus Judas. The “ten ladies dancing” are the Commandments. The “nine drummers” are the choir of angels. The “eight maids a-milking” are the beatitudes. The “seven swans” are the sacraments. And so on it goes down to Jesus, the partridge, in the pear tree. Today this codified catechism is a little quaint and quite bizarre: Jesus a partridge in a pear tree?? – yeah, right.
The song, however, can remind us that a lot of Christmas is encoded. Christmas is not primarily the celebration of the birth of a great man, or even the birth of a man in whom God was uniquely present. The Christmas stories rather are code for God being among, with and within us. God is not stuck on a throne in heaven, but sticks to us on earth. Christmas is not only about celebrating a birth long ago, but the births which happen every day and night.
The Christ child is special for what it says about all children being special. The barn is important for what it says about the breadth of God's embrace, namely that holiness is not confined to sanitary hospitals or churches but is present among the unclean and smelly. The crooked shepherds with their propensity to acquire things off the back of trucks remind us that sacredness is there among the less desirable citizens. The foreign Magi encourage us not to be blind to the spirituality of immigrants and followers of other religions. The angels alert us to the wonder of holiness and critique our urges to control it.
While Santa mythology at its best encourages us to give, especially to those in need, it does not address the heart of Christmas. The heart of Christmas is that the holy is in our midst, among and within you and me. Santa can be appropriated by almost any culture, making the rich feel good about giving whilst their politicians give nothing away, like in the recent world trade negotiations. Holiness however has always been wary of wealth, receiving or giving it. Like refined sugar wealth it is sweet, addictive, and can rot one's soul. The great spiritual traditions have placed a higher value on justice than on giving. For justice is premised upon treating every citizen of the globe as a holy child of God deserving of respect, dignity, and the means to contribute.
This Christmas let us find time to think about the code behind the carols, candles, and celebrations. Let us find time to pause and give thanks for all prophets, teachers, healers and revolutionaries, living and dead, acclaimed or obscure, who have rebelled, worked and suffered for the cause of justice and love. Let us also pause and give thanks for that holy part of us, that part within ourselves, which has rebelled, worked and suffered for the cause of justice and love. For this is Emmanuel.
One of our greatest and beloved Christmas carols, “Silent Night”, holds this truth. On Christmas Eve, 1818, Fr. Joseph Mohr sat alone working on his sermon in an old village high in the Austrian Alps. The text was: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy… to you is born this day… a Saviour.” Just then someone knocked on his door. He opened it to a poor peasant woman who asked him to come and bless a new born child. The woman and the priest trudged through the knee-deep snow. At last they came to a ramshackle hut. A big, awkward man, a charcoal maker by trade, greeted the priest and asked him to enter. The low room was filled with wood smoke and poorly lit, but on the crude bed lay the young mother and new born. Fr. Mohr gave them his priestly blessing.
Joseph Mohr pondered as he went down the mountain again, alone. The smoky shack did not really resemble the Bethlehem stable. Yet somehow the words of his gospel text seemed to come alive. It seemed to him as though the Christmas miracle had just happened, again, here in the mountains. He felt the promise of peace and goodwill in the forest silence and in the brilliance of the stars. There was serenity on that Holy Night. Later the next day he put his feelings into words, and with his friend Franz Guber, the words into music.
On the one hand “Silent Night” is about the birth of Jesus. On the other hand however it is about the birth of the charcoal maker's daughter. God has come among us in both. On a deeper level it is about your birth, and my birth, and the continual conceiving within and growth of our souls. If we only celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas we lose the meaning, the code, of Christmas.