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The Message of Christmas and ‘Observing Cultural Norms’

Abraham entertaining the Angels. Stone, northern Catalunya, late 12th century.

Abraham entertaining the Angels. Stone, northern Catalunya, late 12th century.

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13.2

In England, there is an unacknowledged dichotomy at the heart of our celebration of the Nativity.

The example we are offered is of a woman who has just given birth and is obliged by circumstance to act as hostess to three shepherds and three wise men from the East, none of whom she has ever met before but, given that her son is the Son of God, feel not only entitled but obliged to visit and pay homage to her child. Joseph doesn’t get much of a look-in at this point.  Apart from the Christ child, there are no other children in sight. Nor is there any sign of either Joseph’s or Mary’s sisters, cousins or aunts.

From this biblical example, we have derived an annual celebration in which two adages are universal and constant: ‘it’s all about the children’ and ‘Christmas is about family’. Advent has become a time, not of pious fasting, but attending a series of more or less grim office Christmas lunches and/or village hall gatherings. The more charitable amongst us dig deep in our pockets to support the local food bank or Crisis at Christmas in the days and weeks leading up to December 25th. And then on the day, after attending a church service packed to the rafters with others doing the same, we retreat to our nuclear families – with a judicious addition of assorted sisters, cousins and aunts – to celebrate Christmas.

So how was it for you?

I am sure many of you have families in which there is no sibling rivalry and all the generations interact harmoniously at all times. But many others ruefully echo Ogden Nash’s quatrain Family Court:

One would be in less danger
From the wiles of a stranger
If one’s own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.

Maybe there is a reason for this? I cannot think of any biblical exemplar of units of a father, a mother and 2.4 children being held up as the best group in which to live. The Body of Christ is multi-cellular, as was the unit that was Christ and his disciples.

In India and Pakistan in my childhood, my parents always invited other people who happened to be around to lunch on Christmas Day. In other countries in  which I have lived when I was single – the West Indies and New York – I was always invited to spend Christmas with families (whom I did not even know well). And when, as a result of marrying into the British Council,  I spent Christmas in Calcutta, Delhi, Dar es Salaam and Abu Dhabi, there was always a large group at our table of people who would otherwise be on their own. There was nothing out of the ordinary in doing this – my husband would use (to tease me) the  dreadful Councilspeak expression ‘observing cultural norms’ to describe what we were doing.

But, since returning to England, I can see that it is not part of our cultural norms here to keep open house at Christmas. Hence ‘it’s all about the children’ and ‘Christmas is about family’ (translation: me and mine alone, thank-you very much).

May I suggest that, if the joys of familial togetherness are not always all that they are cracked up to be, you consider diluting these joys by looking outwards beyond your nuclear family. Who knows, if you were to include one or two strangers next year, you might find some angelic quality in them – or even yourselves?

'Rev' Series 2 Episode 7 Christmas Lunch

‘Rev’ Series 2 Episode 7 Christmas Lunch


4 comments on this post:

minidvr said...

We always have a quiet Christmas together, having got the family and friends stuff out of the way beforehand or arranged it for after boxing day. Those two days together are precious to us and as children are grown and gone with families of their own, it’s simpler for us to go to them than for us to cater for them.

I can remember in my Army Days the joy of the Soldiers Christmas Dinner, a real feast and bun fight, where we (seniors and officers) served those who served us for the rest of the year. The going around the barracks on Christmas Morning with Rum and Mince Pies, known as ‘Gunfire’ which could be both interesting and challenging to say the least, but welcomed universally as traditional community building, particularly for those single soldiers or duty personnel who couldn’t get home for Christmas.

Particularly poignant on tours where we were not only not able to get home, but were confined with each other behind secure perimeters when not on duty. Living cheek by jowl with everyone else, we were truly “all in it together” which makes the Prime Ministers or Tories use of the phrase seem selfish and foolish in the extreme.

I believe in service and do as much as I’m able, but those two days, Christmas Day and St Stephens Day are for immediate family and the Church family, and will stay that way probably for the longer term.

27 December 2013 13:46
Lay Anglicana said...

I know what I have written will strike most people as odd.

It was the first year in which ‘my husband and I’ have spent Christmas alone together, and I have found it a great pleasure! We have not had our own big lunch party for a couple of years, and have been spending it with friends in Winchester, who were rather surprised when we turned down their usual kind offer. Our excuse was our first Christmas in our new house. But it is an experiment we look forward to repeating next year.

All I am saying is that I do not believe there is anything biblical, or particularly virtuous, in making this choice. We do so because we want to. And there is nothing wrong with that, particularly in a place where this is the cultural norm. But it is not the norm everywhere.

27 December 2013 16:21
Joyce said...

One Christmas Day in the early eighties when I had eleven or so people somehow sitting round my table orginally designed to seat six, as I was taking a turkey out of the oven I declared silently,’I’m not doing this again.’
Every family at church that morning had been accompanied by visitors who had come to spend at least one day of meal-taking with them.I determined to be one of those who had Christmas Dinner at someone else’s house in future. I have stuck to that promise to myself most years since then.
This year I went to a friend’s house to spend the day with her and her small son to await the arrival of her niece and husband who were due to fly in at 8pm. She told me she was glad that she had issued my invitation in good time ( Boxing Day last year )because it gave her a genuine reason to decline one from her cousin who had about fourteen guests.Another friend went to her godaughter’s house where there were also fourteen.
When I’ve spent Christmas with the friends to whom I was bridesmaid it’s occasionally been just us and their children,but often with the addition of friends, in-laws and church-referred overseas students who’d otherwise spend Christmas alone.
In my childhood,when my sister and I were more interested in what had been in our stockings and bolster-cases than anything else, before we were old enough to go to a hotel for Christmas Dinner,it was just our parents and us and occasionally Grannie.After The Queen we would go to an aunt’s house for tea where we were joined by other aunts,uncles and godparents for games etc. Boxing Day was similar and on Twelfth Night, which was my mother’s birthday,there was another gathering at my godparents’ which included friends and neighbours of theirs. At the end of the evening we took down the decorations from the rooms and stripped the tree which seemed to have been hung with a surprising number of small toys for children to take home.
I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about what the cultural norm is. Every household has its own traditions which become the norm for its members until the composition changes.There’s nothing strange about spending Christmas quietly,nor about being one of a crowd. I have three times elected to have the day to myself,totally undisturbed,with everybody thinking I am somewhere else.
Everything I did and do,plus what’s already been described by others, seems ‘culturally normal’ to me.

27 December 2013 22:58
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this lovely long comment, Joyce :>)

To start at the end first, I think that when the British Council talk about ‘cultural norms’ (an expression which I honestly don’t think ‘normal’ people would use!), what they are trying to express is that not everyone does things the way we do in England. Table manners, for example, vary widely around the world. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ is expressed by the B.C. as ‘Observe Cultural Norms’, but they mean the same thing. Your point that behaviour varies widely within Britain is of course valid – generalisations are always dangerous, but they are tempting.

In my own case, I remember one year when the whole scramble to produce ‘the perfect Christmas celebration’ for as many of my friends whom I could prevail upon to join us (I would start trying to line people up in August, almost as relentlessly as your friend) suddenly seemed too exhausting. Whereas in previous years I had felt tired but happy afterwards, I started to feel just tired and drained. Something to do with age, I expect. And so we are simplifying, year by year, and the more I simplify the more I find I can appreciate the spiritual side, the point of the whole thing.

27 December 2013 23:33

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