Wednesday, December 7, 2011

There's a need for anything that frees us

In my family, as with many families, we have many traditions surrounding the holidays. Christmas Eve dinner, for example, is usually an attempt at the Italian 7-fish dinner (although we end up substituting in different fish, because the traditional ones are expensive). All of us have the Advent calendar memorized, because it's the same one we've used since we were kids. There's usually a viewing of Charlie Brown's Christmas at some point. We can harmonize to the "For unto us a child is born" in Handel's Messiah (and yes, I know it's really for Easter). And then there's the usual stuff, like the tree and the presents and everything.

We have slightly unusual traditions as well.

My brother once said that he waits until finals are over (he's in college) and then he starts playing The Chieftains' album "The Bells of Dublin." That's when he knows it's Christmas, he says. "The Bells of Dublin" is also my favorite, and we play it so often that we get sick of it by Epiphany. A lot of the album is Irish music, but my favorite song on the CD is "The Rebel Jesus" by Jackson Browne:

Well, we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus.

We also usually end up watching "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." I had the book when I was a kid, and at some point, my parents bought the movie. It's this funny story about the Herdemans, the "bad kids" in town, invading the church Christmas pageant. Here's a clip (don't mind the hair and the clothes; it was made in the '80s):

There are some gems in there: 
Imogene: What's a pageant?
Alice: It's a play.
Imogene: Like on TV? What's it about?
Alice: It's about Jesus.

Imogene: Everything here is.

You could say that "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" is about redemption--for the Herdemans, who find themselves in the midst of church, and for the church members, who are more than skeptical about these kids coming in and taking over their pageant. But there's also some interesting social commentary in the movie and book: the kids have no father; their mother works two jobs; the kids get pushed along without really learning anything in school because no teacher wants to have them twice; no one really lends a hand to this family that is obviously struggling (except, in the movie, for the poor social worker, who seems underpaid and overworked).

I don't know if this commentary was intentional or just a convenient plot device. But I do think that both "The Rebel Jesus" and "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" point to a theme that runs deep in Christianity (even if it often gets lost in the voices that scream and shout): this longing for justice, and this reminder that God became incarnated in a poor carpenter.

I think that matters.


  1. Ah yes, The Best Christmas Pageant.

    "Hey! Unto you a child is born!"

    I think the commentary was intentional, at least in the book (I didn't see the movie).

    *digs out battered copy left over from daughter's childhood *

    Yeah, there's that moment at the start of the pageant when the Herdmans are for once uncertain of themselves in the church full of complacent, well-dressed, well-fed Christians:

    "They looked like the people you see on the six o'clock news--refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place.

    It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn't much care what happened to them. They couldn't have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph (Imogene's veil was cockeyed as usual and Ralph's hair stuck out all around his ears). Imogene had the baby doll...and before she put it in the manger she thumped it twice on the back.

    I heard Alice gasp and she poked me. 'I don't think it's very nice to burp the baby Jesus,' she whispered, 'as if he had colic.' Then she poked me again. 'Do you suppose he could have had colic?'

    I said, 'I don't know why not,' and I didn't. He could have had colic, or been fussy, or hungry like any other baby. After all, that was the whole point of Jesus...he was born and lived...a real person.'

  2. That moment did happen in the movie, actually. The narrator tells her parents that Imogene and Ralph look like refugees, and her father says, well, Mary and Joseph were refugees, in a way. And the colic moment happens, too.

    The movie stays pretty close to the book.

  3. I'll have to watch it, then. If only for the scene in which the Herdmans comment on the Gospel narratives:

    ...wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger...
    "You mean they tied him up and put him in the feedbox? Where was the Child Welfare?"

    ...and the glory of the Lord shone round about them...

    ...Herod is going to search for the child to kill him...
    "My God! He just got born and already they're out to kill him!"

    They did have a gift for getting to the heart of the matter.

    Oh, and, The Bells of Dublin is a staple of our Christmas season too.

  4. Oh, yes. All of that happens in the movie.

    Along with:

    "What's it called?"
    "Christmas pageant."
    "That's a dumb name. I'd call it...Revenge at Bethlehem!"

  5. Oh my gosh! The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! I totally forgot about that book! I feel like we read it a bunch of times in school. I have multiple vague memories of it.

  6. I love that book! Definitely one of my favorites. And I definitely got the message/ contrast about them being poor and the townspeople's reactions when I was a kid. As for Mary and Joseph being refugees, it reminds me of Real Live Preacher's version of the story: He suggests that the reason they're in the barn is because Joseph's family felt ashamed by them because they weren't married.