Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas with Uncle Nick

If I were to describe Christmas as a person, then the nearest fit would be that badly behaved but loveable uncle who turns up once a year to entertain and offend in equal measure.

Not that I have an actual uncle like that, but that’s how I would describe my relationship with Christmas; complicated. For convenience, let’s call him Uncle Nick.

As a believer, I enjoy meeting Uncle Nick; we’ve got the same DNA and we share the same history, going back some 2,000 years. We share a common ancestry. He’s family. He’s also a prize idiot with some very strange opinions, and he’s not afraid to tell us about them. There are times when I wish he would simply shut up and stop being so embarrassing. But, just as he provokes me to the point of simultaneously hugging him and smashing his face in, he disappears for yet another year.

I could easily focus on the bad side of Uncle Nick. It's impossible to ignore. He’s crass. He’s the walking embodiment of kitsch. He's a glutton and a drunkard. He’s shamelessly commercial; using the idea of giving as an excuse to get everybody buying his latest products. He usually nods his acknowledgments towards the holy cradle, though his schizophrenic idea of religion vacillates between humanistic therapeutic moralism and fairy stories. Most irritating of all, he seems to do his utmost to remove the Christ from Christmas.

For example, successive re-writes of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have progressively expunged references to the accepted Victorian custom of actually worshipping the child in the crib as God incarnate. It’s deemed less offensive nowadays to worship a generic, faceless God who can, and does, fit into whatever religion anyone cares to invent, though Dickens and his Victorian readers might have been severely offended at our post-modern interpretation of his allegory. They would have known, better than us perhaps, that our image of God is not what Luke and the first Christians described in the story of the nativity.

Another thing about Uncle Nick is that he’s infuriatingly promiscuous. He belongs to everyone and everything. Of course, the supermarket chains love him; we get reminded here that “Christmas is Woolworths”. He allows himself to be seduced by every merchant who wants to sell something. One media empire, though, is getting ahead of itself by wanting to rename it “Foxmas”. I get offended by the replacement of Christ with a product in any context, even in a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign. We’ve been pushing God out of the frame and sitting ourselves in His place ever since the beginning, with consistently disastrous consequences.

Last week, I provoked quite a reaction by suggesting on one on-line forum that a joint Christmas Service with Mormons might not be such a bad idea. Uncle Nick belongs to them too, it seems. The problem here is that he’s pretending that there are no differences between Christianity and Mormonism, when there are, and they are important to both factions. Uncle Nick doesn’t care whom he parties with.

And this is where I confess to a secret admiration of my rogue uncle. He has perfected the art of fitting in. He’s fluid. He simply adopts the shape of whatever situation he finds himself in. That’s what happens when you give yourself to the world (and Christ himself set the precedent on this issue). However, despite his glaring flaws, Uncle Nick still carries the DNA of the story of the Christ-child. Somewhere in there, beneath the Santa outfit and the clutter and mush of sleigh-bells, pixies, yule-logs, tinsel, bad TV and unrelenting advertising, there is still the wonder and mystery of the God who became a baby to live among us.

That’s why Uncle Nick sings. He sings gratuitously, and he sings in everyone’s voice. There are times when he sings with excruciating ineptitude, and others when he’ll make angels weep. Most of his repertoire should be permanently consigned in the garbage-heap of elevator music. Very few of his songs should be allowed in Church, but some deserve to be there, perhaps all year round. When he sings these songs, which he still does, I am willing to overlook his manifold and manifest transgressions, and I thank God he is in my family and I love him for it.

It will be another 364 days before I meet Uncle Nick again. I'm both dreading it, and counting the days. Life would be so much simpler without him but, then, it would be infinitely poorer.

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus our emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace
Hail the sun of righteousness
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild, he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King

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