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Never mind the washing-up: the point of Christmas

December 23, 2012

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.

The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes

The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes, in the Uffizzi Gallery, Florence.

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.

Detail of the shepherds from the Portinari Triptych. (Seeing the expressions on their faces was what first made me appreciate the art of the Northern Renaissance.)

Detail from the Portinari Triptych: the shepherds, the first to act upon the news of the birth of Jesus. (Seeing the expressions on their faces was what first made me appreciate the art of the Northern Renaissance.)

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.

You might enjoy The love that dares to speak its name and Christmas cheer.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2012 12:53 am

    Thank you for wishing the readers a “merry, peaceful and blessed Christmas”. This echos a discussion my husband and I had recently. We’ve become un-trendy and are very “Christmas-y” all the way. Merry Christmas to you!

  2. December 23, 2012 12:58 am

    I used to get into a knot over Season’s Greetings and Happy Holiday cards, but then gave up. I wonder if it is any different than cards that display winter scenes and Santa and sleighs laden with gifts rather than a religious scene. I send out hundreds of cards (to all my clients as well as faraway family and friends) and rather like the choice between secular and religious. I just write ‘Merry Christmas’ inside, if it doesn’t say so on the card.

  3. December 23, 2012 1:10 am

    Merry Christmas to you and your family from Sydney Australia where it is hot nd sunny. Your blog is a delight to read as your words descriptions of the biggest and smallest of events are full of atmosphere and spirit.
    Have a lovely time with your family and I look forward to reading about your new adventures in the New Year

  4. December 23, 2012 1:23 am

    A perfectly lovely post. I always try to pace things so there’s a lull long enough to look around and enjoy – but it’s hard. Enjoyed the tale about Babushka. I’ll use that from now on when my husband is frantically worrying over what isn’t done.
    May warmth and joy find your hearth and linger there.
    Merry Christmas to you and yours

  5. December 23, 2012 1:46 am

    Merry Christmas & thank you for the lovely story & the timely reminder about not getting bogged down in the details.

  6. December 23, 2012 3:52 am

    And a very merry Christmas to you and all your boys. Prioritizing is a difficult but necessary skill anytime of the year, but particularly at this time when we are struggling to weed out the insanity from the spiritual. Here’s to a sink full of dirty dishes and a room full of good company!

  7. December 23, 2012 11:39 am

    I think it’s the atheists who are offended but they don’t want to admit it. Not all of them of course! Just the ones who hate religion and want it got rid of. The Babushka story reminds me of Martha and Mary (I’ve never been in much danger of becoming a Martha or Babushka!)
    Happy Christmas 🙂

  8. December 23, 2012 6:57 pm

    I don’t share the religious aspect of Christmas but love a winter festival so treat it as such! And yes I do fear for many friends who get so caught up in busy-ness and miss out on some treasured memories at this time of year. I enjoy my quiet solitary time mid-winter. A time for reflection and lots of chocolate and mince pies! I wish you and all your family a very Happy Christmas and much joy in the New Year!

  9. Jenni C permalink
    December 24, 2012 8:46 am

    This is a lovely sermon. Thank you for sharing. Best wishes for a wonderful Christmas for all of you and a happy, healthy, peaceful New Year. xo

  10. December 24, 2012 8:50 am

    Oh I so agree with this, DB (and your thoughts on greetings cards) and well remember the frantic working years with a young family when the story of Babushka would have been a salutary reminder in the run-up to Christmas. Now I try to ease the load on which ever of our children we are spending Christmas with, as I see them in the same situation.

    May your Christmas be joyous and blessed, with a bit of peace thrown in for good measure. 🙂

  11. December 25, 2012 10:01 pm

    Hello from Southern California 🙂 I haven’t been by for a while (not enough time in my days for everything) but i haven’t forgotten you and your lovely blog.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family. What a lovely xmas post! I love the story about the babushka – so glad you shared it with us. Though we don’t celebrate Christmas in our home I don’t get offended when people send me xmas cards. I think it’s nice to be remembered.

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