When I was a child I found it absolutely thrilling to open the ‘number 24’ on my Advent calendar. That final window was bigger than the rest and it alone had two doors instead of one. Some years the tension got too much and I would cheat and take a peep several days early.
I’m not sure why I was so excited, since those two flaps always revealed the same thing: a little symmetrical tableau of the holy family, complete with well behaved ox and ass. Usually there was a halo of light emanating from the ‘manger’ – actually more like a cradle than something that animals would eat out of – and sometimes there were stars and angels in the sky, bathing the scene in a yellowy wash.
Many years later, I can see how this sanitised version of the nativity feeds the tyrannical view that Christmas is a time of perfection. Perhaps as a child that is what I wanted; as adults we need to be ruthless about confronting the fact that it is impossible.
We might laugh at these blatantly posed images but the same messages still bombard us today, whether it is from the endless parade of TV chefs doing Christmas specials, or the smug and slender models who smile out of the windows of every high street clothes store.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the primary sources suggest a radically different scene for the first Christmas. I do not think it was very neat and tidy in the outhouse where Jesus was born. It is unlikely that a teenager who had just given birth looked particularly glamorous. Not all of Mary’s relatives would have been thrilled that she’d conceived out of wedlock.
I hope everyone reading this has a brilliant Christmas, but if your turkey is dry or your children squabble, or if you’re secretly feeling really sad inside, just remember this: nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wished they’d made more effort to live like an advert.