Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but who was he?  Did he ever exist?  I, along with most of the billion or so people who celebrate Christmas, don’t know.  So perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on whether Jesus was a historical figure and focus more on what his life and his birth represents for us.         


Jesus’ story has a powerful symbolic significance.  It is a story of an ordinary man from humble beginnings, who became a teacher, an orator who preached understanding and forgiveness in a divided culture.  He was the Barack Obama of his time;  his open air sermons, like Obama’s political rallies, could attract multitudes.  Forget the loaves and the fishes, they feasted on his rhetoric. Growing up in occupied Palestine, he had the courage to stand up for the rights of ordinary people. He inspired compassion, his very touch could make the sick and unhappy feel well. His homespun philosophy of understanding and common sense had direct appeal.  He would care for them, understand their frailty and weakness – forgive their sins.  Jesus was a maverick.  He never attempted to ingratiate himself with the authorities.  On the contrary, he supported the outcast, the leper, and protected the woman who was about to be stoned in adultery. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’  He had the courage of conviction. He opposed the rigid, harsh dogma of the religious leaders, but lost his rag when he saw how they allowed the temple to be used as a place of commerce. 


To set himself up as The Son of God was, however, a dangerous delusion and would, in our time,  call into question his sanity and that of his followers.  Psychoanalysts today might understand his narcissism and delusion as the compensations of an isolated and vulnerable individual to parental deprivation. It can’t be easy believing you ae the son of God and growing up with the burden of having to save mankind. But this is stuff of leadership. Even our current prime minister, who is going through something akin to resurrection, has delusions of saving the world. 


The Jesus myth appeared out of the desert, a symbol of hope in a time of oppression.  It was the kind of narrative that creates Gods out of charismatic teachers and politicians. But perhaps his was a less cynical age when people understood little about the nature of the world and our place in it and were all too prepared to believe in the supernatural.  His death as a martyr ensured the legend.  But Christianity would have remained a minority cult, an object of curiosity for latterday academics, were it not for the peripatetic teachings of Paul and the ultimate espousal of  Christianity as the official faith by Byzantium. 



To dismiss Christianity as myth would deny its importance.  We are creatures of imagination.  We have to believe in something. Otherwise life is meaningless.  And when we break it down, everything, even what purports to be scientific ‘truth’ is a product of our imagination, because we have invented the rules that govern it.  It’s the way we try to make sense of the world.  Fact is meaningless; it’s the fiction we make out of it that’s the thing. 


So we read how the birth of a saviour, God incarnate, was foretold by the prophets.  We understand how it took place in mean surroundings but accompanied by cosmic symbols. We learn how the leaders of the tribal lands to the east, wise kings, recognised his birth as having political significance and gave him gifts.  And we are encouraged to believe that his mother was a virgin, married to a much older man, but impregnated by an angel.  Hmmmm!  Well, if you believe that …….!  But the fact that this stretches our credibility is not important, it’s what the story represents that matters. 


So what can we take from Christmas?  Well, above all, it’s a family story.  There’s nothing like a birth, a new baby, to bring the family together.  The act of creation carries with it the seeds of what has gone before while ensuring the continuation of identity,  the survival of meaning into the future.  Christmas survives because, as the basic unit of human society, the family survives as a symbol of hope.  The Christmas story emphasises the importance of family, and through family to the whole community.  We are social animals.  Without society of family and friends, we fail to thrive.  This is why the family comes back home at Christmas to eat together, to exchange gifts and play.  It’s the consolidation of a collective identity in a fragmented world. 


I went to the carol concert this year, because I believed in the symbolic importance of the Christmas story and wished to join with others in the village to support it. And it was a touching counterpoint when The Duke from the big house read a lesson after a five year old girl from the primary school.   


So I don’t think we should be too precious about the materialism of Christmas.  Presents are the currency of relationships at Christmas these days and if that’s the way it works, so be it.  And I don’t think we should worry about eating too much.  It’s a day for feeding the soul and Lord knows how much it needs nourishment these days. 


As a celebration of family,  Christmas exaggerates the dynamics. If the family is peaceful and content, then Christmas will be all yule logs and plum pudding,  but there are tensions in all families and these are always exaggerated at Christmas. It’s like August in Osage County – or the omnibus edition of Eastenders. 


This Christmas, with our own children scattered and distant,  my brother and I entertained our increasingly querulous and confused 92 year old mother, maintaining her buoyancy with the aid of mince pies, photograph albums and a commentary of upbeat anecdotes, and avoiding topics that could sink her, like her first husband, our father who must now be nursing a pint in comfort of some celestial ‘Queen’s Arms’.  And afterwards, we drove her home to her flat in Sheffield by way of Bedminster Down while the bombs rained down on Bristol city centre.  Firework night!  But that was her Christmas story!