Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas and myths

It's Olive the Other Reindeer time again, which reminds me of one of my favourite lines (said by a reindeer in a bar): "there is no Rudolf, that's just an urban myth". And that in turn makes me think about Christmas and myths.

There's a lot of myths around at Christmas. There's Santa, so bizarre a  story that we have to teach it to children, but is believed by no adults. There's Winterval, the belief fomented by the right wing press that the state is banning public mention of Christmas (pops up each year, almost always completely baseless). And then there's the nativity story...

It's hardly a new remark to observe that much of the popular version of the nativity, seen in countless school plays and cards, is non-biblical. The numbers of wise men aren't recorded, they weren't kings, and they certainly weren't called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. The stable didn't contain an ox and an ass (indeed, there was no stable - only a manger, which is to say an animal feeding-trough). There's no record of Mary going to Bethlehem on a donkey. We can't place it on 25th Dec, if only for those poor shepherds who would be most unwise to be on the cold hills around Bethlehem at night in winter.

There are problems with the biblical narrative, if we want to read it in modern terms. Virgins don't give birth, stars don't move around in the sky to hover over towns (though much effort has been spent to explain that one),  and while plenty of religious people might believe in angels, few shepherds have seen them appearing en masse.

But perhaps we might be best to take the biblical narrative on its own terms - as John Drane says in The McDonaldization of the Church, the best way with stories is to read them as stories and not worry too much about their factual accuracy. There are many different forms of text in the Bible, but to read them all as scientifically-grounded fact in the modernist style (whether to debunk them as a sceptic or to accept them wholesale as a fundamentalist) is unwise.

So back to myth, and the famous late-night conversation between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in 1931, where Tolkien outlined his conception of myth and its relation to the Christian story. It is said to have led directly to Lewis' conversion, and his subsequent work as a Christian apologist. He wrote in October 1931: "the story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened, and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's Myth where the others are men's myths".

The myths about the popular version of the nativity support important truths, whatever their authenticity (the stable shows us that Jesus came from the poor and down-trodden, not from the rich and powerful); and the scientifically-dubious aspects of the biblical story likewise have their own truths. The important thing is to look for the deeper meaning behind the details of the myths. As John Betjeman wrote:
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant, 
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.