Christmas is a chameleon. It adapts itself to different cultures, different situations and seasons. But it wears sufficient ancient trappings to suggest that it has always been celebrated like this.
Many of the details of the traditional Australian celebration came into England only in the 19th century. Santa Claus in his present appearance came from the United States, Christmas trees were imported by Queen Victoria, the family Christmas popularised by Charles Dickens, carols by song collectors at the end of the 19th century, and the cash register invented in the United States.
The public celebration of Christmas has survived banning by the Puritans because it was not Christian enough; now it is subject to some restrictions because it is too Christian; in many Asian societies it has completely lost its associations with Christ’s birth. It will surely continue to be popular, marked by continuous innovations that will promptly be declared traditional.
The Christian story of Christmas is also a chameleon. The Gospel stories of Jesus’ infancy are a summary of the whole Gospel, and so adapted to all its tenses. Its details can refer to contemporary predicaments: the disruption of an inexplicable pregnancy, the joy of birth, the promise of good news, the impositions of taxation, the pain of homelessness, the rumours of angels, the brutalities of national security, the anxiety of those fleeing persecution, the growth of children and family stresses.
In some years the celebration of Christmas is free and unshadowed; in other years it echoes and judges what is happening in national life. In recent years, the story of Herod’s pursuit of the nation’s children in the name of the national interest has been echoed by the callous harrowing of people who seek protection in Australia. This year the conjunction of the feast with the hearings of the Royal Commission into child abuse these last weeks have created disconcerting echoes with what has been done in the Catholic Church.
Christmas tells the story of a God who entrusted Christ as a vulnerable baby safely to the care of Mary and Joseph in a markedly hostile secular environment. The stories told at the Royal Commission are of parents who entrusted their vulnerable children unsafely to the care of representatives of Christ’s church. They met not Christ, but Herod. The face of Herod in our day is not that of a persecutor who threatens the freedom of the church in a secularist age. His face is that of a minister of the church who betrays and kills from within.
The strength of the chameleon lies in its capacity to adapt itself to its surroundings, to remain itself and to survive. The claim of the Christian Gospel, of course, extends beyond survival. It is that the reality of death and betrayal in their deepest forms have been accepted and faced down. Ultimately the mask of Herod, whether worn by functionaries of state or of church, is only a mask. The hope for irrepressible life expressed in the vulnerable and unmasked baby is the authentic face of the world.
The Christmas tree, Santa, carols, shop illuminations and cash registers serve us well in times when we prosper and are confident. The Gospel stories of Christmas offer hope in times of betrayal as well as of decency.