For parents and grandparents of kindergarten age children this is the season for Christmas shows. Each kindy seems to have one. Dressed in tinsel, brightly coloured robes and animal costumes the children parade in to a mix of catchy seasonal tunes. In addition to the usual pageant characters there are reindeer, fairies, princesses, dogs, cats, and Starwars troopers. One’s imagination seems to be the only limit to the script and cast. Some children smile and wave, others look anxious, and others look at the gesticulating teachers wondering what all those hand signals could possibly mean.
The parents for their part are holding phones and cameras, trying to attract their darling’s attention, and trying less successfully to restrain their younger children. They are also the choir for this event, and don’t seem to mind – even enjoy – singing the same songs every year. Parents, whose children have grown up and passed beyond such shows, remember often with misty eyes, how lovely, innocent, and chaotic it all was.
As a minister in a church with a kindergarten I have the privilege of participating in this annual ritual and watching the ritual play out. There is a lot of affection, pride, and joy – both from the parents and grandparents towards the children and vice versa. This form of Christmas show is a story in itself, and it’s a story about the wonder of being a child and belonging.
The first Christmas came into being through storytellers. They had experienced the powerful spirituality of the adult Jesus. They had experienced too the truth of his message: that Love – excessive, unconditional love (also known as ‘love incarnate’) is among us turning the human race into the human family.[i]
No one though knew too much about the facts of Jesus’ birth. So the storytellers created stories - parables really. Instead of asking, ‘Did it really happen like that?’ the reader of a parable asks, ‘What does it mean?’
And storytellers for the last two thousand years have kept on telling stories about Jesus’ birth. I have on my shelves a collection of Christmas children’s books that include rabbits, guinea pigs, wise men and wise women, a Grinch, Christmas and Mary in many different cultures, Santa, and even a dinosaur. Christmas is a big story that has been adapted and readapted, imagined and re-imagined many times, and so it will continue to be.
Maybe it was hearing the song ‘Little Donkey’ repeated over and over during kindy rehearsals that guided my hand to pluck from my shelf a book of the same title.[ii] In this tale Jesus been born, and the little donkey [our hero] hearing about Jesus’ birth longs to visit him. Jesus in ‘Little Donkey’ is a king; whereas we know he was actually a parody, a living critique, of any and all kings.
So our heroic donkey sets off on this journey braving many dangers. He meets a few naysayers. There’s a camel who tells our hero he will be not be allowed to visit a king because he, Little Donkey, is stupid. Then there’s a lion who tells him you have to be important to visit a king, and donkeys aren’t. A hyena has a similar message. Despite all this however Little Donkey persists until, alas, he gets lost.
Then there is a little sprinkling of what theologians call deus ex machina – divine magic tricks – to help our hero out when he’s at the end of his tether. Like angels and a star. Finally Little Donkey arrives, not at a palace but at a stable, and as a reward gets a smile fit for a king and loving outstretched arms.
For the purists who want any Christmas story to be a replica of what’s in one of the two biblical accounts, ‘Little Donkey’ could be something of a disappointment. But for those of us who think faith involves following where your heart is leading, it’s a story worth telling. For are not the sacred things, the sacred moments in life, often found in unexpected places [stables, sheds…], among those we least expect to be wise and spiritual [animals, children…]? Is it not true that we often have to overcome the negative voices of others, when our heart is seeking for something we can’t quite articulate or visualize? And is it not true that engaging in such a search comes at a cost?
“Light the Lamps”[iii] is another children’s story about Christmas, but begins after Jesus has been born. It’s about rejection and acceptance.
The story is told by a young girl who is being brought up by her step-parents. Her step-mother hasn’t been able to give birth to children and the pain of that is ever present. This pain is symbolized in a little carved camel that the step-mother has kept for the hoped-for child of her womb. There is pain too for the young girl, who longs to be full accepted by her step-mother.
The young girl has also befriended Mary, Joseph and their toddler, and gets a lot of joy out of playing with Jesus. Indeed in playing with him she feels, despite the lack of evidence, that the world is good place and all shall be well.
The young girl wants her step-mother to experience this feeling too and meet the toddler Jesus. But it is too difficult for her. One day however, as chance would have it, the young girl and her step-mother happen to meet Mary and Jesus at the market, and before she knows it, they are at Mary’s house, and a sleeping baby is placed in the step-mother’s arms.
When they return home the step-mother gives the girl a shaky smile and a hug. She fetches the little camel and puts it in her hand. And then she lights every lamp in the house.
Apart from a chance meeting in the market there is no ‘deus ex machina’ in this story. Instead there is pain and struggle, and finally acceptance. Christmas with its emphasis on babies and families can be very hard on some people.
Through the power of persistence, the power of physical touch, and the power of friendship, some healing comes for both the girl and her step-mother. The human race can transform into the human family when there is tenacity, grace, and opportunity. Every child is a holy child.
The last Christmas story I’d like to mention is one set in New Zealand[iv], in a caravan park, where Simon and his mother live. The caravan park was not popular with the folk in the neighbouring town.
The local council decides to run a competition for the best ‘Christmas decorated house’, and Simon wants to enter. He doesn’t care if he doesn’t have money for decorations; he’ll make his own.
So mother and child embark on this project – collecting, painting, constructing. Plastic bottles become bells, tins are made into streamers, and tinfoil and wire coat-hangers become a star.
Well there are many entries for the competition, most looking like houses on Franklin Road in Ponsonby. Although Simon’s address was listed with the other competitors in the newspaper, no one from the town comes to look at the decorated caravan. Even the judges – the Mayor and two councillors – don’t come by to look. That night the judges were going to choose the winner, and still no one had come by.
The next morning Simon’s mum rings the Mayor and politely asks whether he’d got lost. His excuses were pretty lame: ‘it was late’, ‘there were so many’, ‘a caravan isn’t exactly a house.’ The Mayor, to his credit, also knew his excuses were lame.
That night the Mayor and the councillors came to the caravan park and were duly impressed with Simon’s hard work and creativity. Although the prize for the best decorated house had been already awarded, the Mayor asked Simon whether he would like a special award: a week’s stay at a beach camping ground in Simon’s own caravan.
Simon hadn’t had a holiday before. The neighbours in the caravan park put together some money to buy him a towel and a boogie board. Then the Mayor towed the caravan to the beach.
The story concludes with Simon’s mum being offered a job at the beach store, and the two of them deciding to stay on.
This New Zealand story highlights issues of poverty and prejudice. Simon and his mother didn’t have money for Christmas decorations, let alone a house or a holiday. When Simon’s mum confronted the Mayor he probably thought he was being kind – rather than being fair – when he came to see the caravan. Likewise when the Mayor created the special award.
This story though doesn’t dwell on the negatives but focusses upon and applauds the determination of a young boy who will not let the unfairness of life dampen his spirit or his industry. Simon believed in himself, and his mother believed in him. They also had the support of financially resource-poor neighbours. Together they found a happier future.
In these Christmas stories, like in the first Christmas stories, there are spiritual parcels under the tree waiting for us to unwrap, and try on, and maybe even be changed by:
Follow your heart, and find God in unexpected places. The real guiding star to Bethlehem is your heart.
Don’t let cruel words or insensitive actions discourage you from following your heart.
Believe in yourself, even when life seems unfair. Isn’t this Mary’s story?
Believe in yourself, even when it’s costly.
Give those you love the gift of believing in them. Isn’t this Joseph’s story?
Confront prejudice. Like the gospel writers do; like Jesus does.
Be generous to others, for sharing is at the heart of God. Unconditional love is what it’s all about.
Friendship, a gentle touch, a caring word… these are holy, healing things.
Be kind to others, particularly those who are excluded. The best Christmas movie this year is about kindness – the kindness of Mr Rogers.[v]
Every child is a holy child.
It is not the human race we are a part of, but the human family.
When you are kind and generous to others your own wellbeing is enhanced and you bring God/love alive.
[i] Dom Crossan
[ii] G. M. Scheidl The Little Donkey, New York : North-South Books, 1988.
[iii] M. Wild & D. Huxley Light the Lamps, Sydney : Margaret Hamilton, 1994.
[iv] J. Beck The Christmas Caravan Auckland : Scholastic, 2002.
[v] A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood