Never mind the washing-up: the point of Christmas
When we know exactly when it falls each year, why does Christmas always seem such a rush? Perhaps it is because, as a wise friend observed the other day, there is in fact only a brief window to make preparations when it is neither too early (Christmas cards arriving before the beginning of Advent: for goodness’ sake!) nor too late (my father-in-law once got around to sending out his Christmas cards the following Whitsun; which is in May).
By this stage, however, most things have been done that will be done. There are one or two things I have left undone which I ought to have done but, on the whole, it looks like the family Christmas will be going ahead. By which I mean, of course, the decorations up, the food bought or made, the menus planned, the guest beds made up, the presents wrapped. As to the real point of Christmas, the heart of the matter, the birth of the Saviour…well, our local Minister told a wee story to the children at our younger son’s school carol concert on Friday that stopped me in my hurried tracks.
It was about how the Three Wise Men, the Magi, spent the night at the house of an old woman on their way to Bethlehem. They explained the purpose of their journey and tried their very best to persuade her to accompany them, but she claimed to be too busy. She had the washing up to do and the laundry to be done and the chickens to feed and the house to be swept. The next morning the Magi had gone on their way. The old woman did her chores, thinking all the while of this baby who was said to be the longed-for Messiah. At last she decided to follow the Magi. First, though, she went to look through the box of toys which had belonged to her own baby son many years ago, thinking she could take one along as a present to the new child. But the toys were so dusty that she spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning and polishing them. It was evening before she set out, following the bright star as the Magi had instructed.
She arrived too late, of course. The holy family had taken their child and left the country to escape persecution by King Herod. The Magi had gone back to the East. The story tells that the old woman, Babushka, wanders the world to this day in search of the Christ child. And when she finds a new born baby, she leaves a toy beside its crib…just in case.
I suppose you could say that this story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of obsessive-compulsive cleanliness. No worries there, then! Certainly it is a story aimed, it seems to me, at mothers more than at children. The Minister might say that it is about being open to Christ’s invitation. Hearing it four days before Christmas at the end of a busy week, I felt that it was also about priorities. Yes, a family Christmas needs any number of practical preparations. We also need to make time, however, for preparation of the spirit. Never to take it for granted, that pretty story with the angels and the ox and the ass, but to ponder its meaning every year, to consider how it might affect us and, through our action or inaction, how we might affect others. Quite a responsibility. And also, quite an extraordinary and joyful opportunity. Don’t let’s miss it: Babushka, the washing-up can wait.
On a different note, I was thinking today about the vogue for Christmas cards which say ‘Happy Holidays’ for fear of offending non-Christian friends by the use of the word ‘Christmas’. Have I ever been offended, I wondered, by Jewish friends inviting me to a Hanukkah celebration, or by pagan friends wishing me a happy Solstice? Or was I upset as a child in Singapore, when our Muslim amah brought me home-made cookies to celebrate Hari Raya Puasa (Eid al-Fitr)? Of course not. Good wishes are good wishes, given and received in a spirit of warmth and kindness. And so, my friends and faithful readers, whatever your beliefs and whatever your circumstances, I am happy to wish you a very merry, peaceful and blessed Christmas.