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Visions of Christmas Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 16:18 GMT
Tall tales and pantomime
Traditional nativity scene
Nativity plays: Fantasy not fact
BBC News Online is presenting a series of personal viewpoints on Christmas from Christians from all walks of life. Here, James Veitch, associate professor of religious studies at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, asks who is for honesty at Christmas?

Christmas is a time for celebration, partying, lavish spending, lots of presents and a few fibs here and there. So why rock the boat with honest talk of Jesus's unglamorous birth?

If the church is to be believed, Christmas is about God turning the world into a spectacular theatre and creating an epic drama.

It is about angels visiting women with names like Mary and Elizabeth and appearing in dreams to fellows like Zecharia and Joseph.

It is about startled shepherds, one minute freezing in the night air and the next galvanized into becoming evangelists for the greatest story ever told: "God is here" they shout as they sprint excitedly towards Bethlehem.

It is about a poverty stricken pious teenage girl clutching a radiantly divine new born babe to her breast in the smelly basement of a hostelry.

It is about a bright star and mysterious visitors laden with gifts. That, says the church, is what Christmas is all about.

Poetry and pantomime

An unbeatable story for action, drama and brilliance. It is sheer poetry. Leave the myth alone. It has magic all of its own and the world needs that magic for a night and as a bonus for a few hours the next day.

But that is the problem. Christmas is just that, a dramatic fairy story - at least the way it is celebrated today. The baby conceived by God in the womb of Mary is born King for a day, only to be killed the next (in divine time) to become saviour of the world.

Most festive churchgoers however never get passed the pantomime and never have a hope of hearing what is really important - the wisdom of the man, Jesus.

That is not the way it was in the first century and for quite some time thereafter. Those early Christians did not have birth stories for their hero until around 90AD.

Magic without myth

Birth stories in the Gospel of Matthew were put there by Jewish Christians, to let Jews know that Jesus was greater than all the great heroes of the Jewish faith and history.

A similar technique was used by the writer of the Gospel of Luke a few years later to tell Greeks and Romans that Jesus was of greater rank and significance than the emperors. It was a case of : "Our Jesus is better than your Emperor." Both sets of birth stories are incompatible

Neither the gospels of Mark (circulating around 75 AD) nor John (100-120AD ) have birth stories. It was in the sixth century that Dionysius Exiguus, now famous for creating the Christian millennium, turned the church's attention away from gazing at the crucifixion to pondering the birth of its victim.

The church then lost its way and allowed its story of Jesus to be increasingly corrupted and distorted. He is well past his "use by" date as the babe of Bethlehem.

It is time to rescue the figure of Jesus from the cradle of the fairy tale world of Santa. It is this man's wisdom that the world needs to hear. Is it not time to tell the truth about his birth. To be honest about who he was . . . and is. Christmas as we now celebrate it in the church is nothing at all like it was in the first century. So, who is for honesty this Christmas?

Links to more Visions of Christmas stories are at the foot of the page.

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Links to more Visions of Christmas stories

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