Seasonal songs of joy can obscure a grimmer reality

Layers of the romanticised Christmas narrative need to be peeled back so the real stories retain their power

Israeli Arab Christians wear traditional custom celebrate the annual Christmas parade in Nazareth, Israel. AP
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All religions are, at their core, about us – about real people living in a world with others, trying to make sense of our joy and sorrow, our fears and hopes, and our purpose for being here. When looked at this way, the stories told in our scriptures, when stripped down to their essential message, teach us beautiful lessons about how we should see our lives.

For example, the narrative around Christmas, celebrated in December and – by some, in January – is about the birth of Jesus. But it really is much more than that. If you listen to the scriptural stories closely (both Christian and Muslim) and place real people in the story, it comes to life and speaks about the profound and transformative reality that is birth.

With that thought in mind, let’s peel away the myths that have distorted the Christmas narrative, the romanticised tale that has taken hold in our popular culture. In the Silent Night / Oh! Little Town of Bethlehem version, Mary is smiling while Joseph is hovering protectively over mother and child. Animals provide warmth; angels are singing; and shepherds come to see the newborn "Babe in the Manger". In this version, all is pure and all is bright.

It is a comfortable story. But it's not real.

A pilgrim prostrates in prayer before the grotto, believed to be the site of the birth of Jesus, at the crypt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Christmas Day on December 25.  AFP

If we stop for a moment and consider the actual circumstances of the birth, a very different story emerges. From scripture and tradition, we learn that Joseph and Mary had travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because they were required to return to their home community to comply with an imperial edict to be counted in a census. The nearly 130-kilometre trip covered on foot or on donkey's back was arduous and long, taking at least five days. With Mary more than eight months pregnant, it must have also been quite frightening and painful.

When they arrived at their destination, we are told they could find no room and were forced to bed down in a stable – which in Bethlehem meant a cave where the animals were housed. The experience must have been difficult to endure and perhaps even a little humiliating.

It was here that Mary gave birth. At this point, the gospel stories fall silent and so our imagination, by default, has been forced to leap almost magically from their arrival in Bethlehem to the scene of Mary holding the child. In Surah Maryam, however, the Quran provides us with the missing piece of the story, one which agrees with unwritten Christian tradition. Here we are told that as the time of birth nears, Mary goes off by herself and when labour grows intense, she cries out: "Would that I had died before this." A young woman, frightened, alone in the throes of giving birth, and in pain.

Palestinian protesters hold placards as the convoy of Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III arrives in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on January 6, 2018 ahead of a Christmas service according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar. 
The municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, all in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, called for the boycott over Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch allegedly allowing controversial real estate sales.  / AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER

The story doesn't end here because we are told that weeks later, fearing for the life of their newborn at the hands of an angry Herod, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee to Egypt – again by foot and on a donkey's back – where they were to live in exile for years before being able to return to their home in Nazareth.

When we consider all this, instead of the idealised and pristine myth of the birth of Jesus, we are confronted with a very different reality – a child born to a frightened and exhausted woman, in a not-so-comfortable cave.

I was prompted to reflect on this real story a few years ago, when I received an envelope containing what appeared to be a holiday greeting card from Walid Joumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader. I opened it and was stunned to find a picture of the face of an anguished child peering out through the slats of a destroyed structure. Inside, the card simply read "Remember the wretched of the Earth". My first reaction was to recoil in shock at the disconnect between the other joyous cards I had been receiving and this image of pain and sorrow. "What kind of greeting is this?" I asked.

As the day wore on, the image of that little face stayed with me, crying out to be remembered. I thought of Mary's tired and dirtied face at the end of her trip along Palestine's dusty roads. I thought of her fear and pain and of her bloodied newborn whom she couldn't wash to present to the shepherds. And I thought of that little family fleeing to Egypt. They were, in that time, the wretched of the Earth.

A devotee receives communion during Christmas morning mass at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral of St Nicholas in Cairo on December 25. AFP

What then came to mind were the hundreds of Palestinians born each day in Gaza's devastated squalor or in exile in refugee camps; or the hundreds of babies born to Syrian refugees in their camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, or now, in transit, in Europe; and of their frightened parents, concerned for the safety and survival of their newborns. And I thanked Mr Joumblatt for reminding me of what we should never forget.

We should not allow the Christmas story to be stripped of its humanity or cleansed of its muck and grime. Its power is in its reality that should serve to focus our attention on our responsibility to see in the birth of Jesus: the faces of the outcasts for whom there is no room in the inn; the wretched of the Earth for whom there is no comfort; and the frightened exiles who seek only safety and refuge.

It is only when we do not avert our glance from these reminders that we can understand the story and spirit of Christmas. And when we sing the seasonal songs of joy, we should think of them not as depictions of reality, but as aspirational – representing the vision of the world we should want to create for all children – ours and those wretched and frightened little ones whom we all too often forget.

Published: December 28, 2022, 2:00 PM