One of my favourite Christmas songs is Perry Como’s “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. There’s something about his easy crooning style that seems just right for the song, but there’s also something about the sentiment – the excitement that Christmas is coming near.
In church we have particular Sundays that mark the passage of Advent and the coming of Christmas. On the first Sunday we consider the Last Days – the Mayans were three weeks late. Later we think about the Prophets and John the Baptist and then finally the prophecy that Gabriel gave to Mary, that she would bear a son who would be the Saviour of the world. These are the markers that we have in church.
There will often be another set of Christmas rituals that we have in our homes. One of mine is getting the poinsettia from the supermarket, marvelling at how its still the same price as last year and congratulating myself on what a fine specimen it is. Then there is the purchase of the Christmas Radio Times which I pore over and see lots of films that I’d like to see. A small percentage I’ll get round to recording and these will then stay unwatched until next Christmas comes.
Other Christmas markers are the stories that appear in the news. These are the mixture of good and bad news stories – with nothing in between – that are peculiar to Christmas. They are designed to show that either a) individuals or organisations are Scrooges, or, b) that the spirit of Christmas is not yet dead. There have been a number of these this year.
You might have seen the story about the NYPD cop and the homeless man. The incident happened at the end of November, so if we work on supermarket scheduling, that’s well inside the window of Christmas. New York police have not been always received good publicity as one headline suggested: NYPD Officer Caught On-Camera Doing Really Nice Thing. The nice thing that the 25-year-old Officer Lawrence DePrimo did, was to buy a homeless man a pair of shoes.
The homeless war veteran, in his fifties, was begging on a cold night, when the officer seeing he was homeless, went into a shop and bought the man some shoes. A nice touch was that he used his police department discount card to get 25% off. A tourist took a photos of the officer giving the man the shoes and by the power of the internet the policeman became famous.
A British policeman wasn’t so lucky. He interrupted a school Nativity Play to ask parents to move their cars because they had parked on double yellows and were obstructed the entrance to a doctor’s surgery. There were mixed feelings about whether to boo or cheer the policeman’s action as although he disrupted the play, the parents’ parking was clearly causing a problem and besides, it was a fee-paying school and the cars were all 4x4s, BMWs and Mercs, so they could be said to have deserved it.
There was no ambiguity about another story involving a traffic warden. The warden booked two coaches that were loading on a party of disabled children and their wheelchairs. To make matters worse, the children had been carol singing for a homeless charity. The two £70 fines have since been waived – although it would have been a bit of a waste for the Council to collect a fine from a school that is funded – yes, you’ve guessed it – by the same Council.
But let’s end with a good news story. Did you see the teacher whose boyfriend turned up at the school where she worked and interrupted the Nativity Play. This time, it wasn’t about getting the parents to move their cars. It was so that he could ask his teacher girlfriend to marry him. Like all public proposals, this was clearly a high risk course of action, but the lady said ‘yes’ and so the children and 200 parents went away happy.
School Nativity plays have a long tradition in schools, although it is unusual nowadays to see a straightforward take on the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. For example, I know of one school that this year told the story of aliens helping the crew of a crash landed spaceship return to earth for Christmas Day. Those schools that do have Nativity Plays often include extra characters. The film Love Actually has a scene in which a child plays an octopus in the school Nativity. I also heard a newsreader on the radio this week say that as a child she was a Spanish lady who brought a net of satsumas to Jesus. We saw something of this creativity with our own Travelling Nativity set when our wise men were photographed on the back of a stuffed toy rabbit.
I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I’ve always liked the story of the young lad playing the inn-keeper in the Nativity story. Rather than turn away Mary and Joseph when they came to his door, he greeted them with a big smile and beckoned them saying, “Come on in, there’s loads of room!”
I like that inn-keeper, because it seems to me that he epitomises the essence of the Christmas story. OK, so it rather messes up a significant element of the story, but if truth be told, there wasn’t an inn-keeper in the version in the Bible. There were shepherds – generally considered undesirable people on account of their smelling of sheep. Then there were the wise men – they weren’t even Jewish and they were astrologers … and we know what Christians think about astrology. These shepherds and wise men were the first people to welcome God’s Son into the world. The outsiders became insiders, because that’s what Christmas is all about – God turning the world upside down. The Church hasn’t always been very good at demonstrating it, but God’s love is for all and there are no exclusions. The message of Christmas is, “Come on in, there’s loads of room”.