Tell Me a Story

1. Church of St. Nicholas at Kenilworth

Most people associate Christmas with a religious festival sacred to Christians, a family food-stuffing contest, or a winter fest we indulge in to keep shopkeepers and booze-makers happy. But what about a festival wherein we share all the most important kinds of stories we can think of? Like the family stories of the past year we share with relatives and friends. We have the Grand Elf of materialism, Santa, coming out of his Arctic refuge to present children everywhere with toys. A story that combines flying sleighs and sliding down chimneys. Told that way, it seems like a drunken nightmare, but such is the imagination that the story of Santa charms all children.

What else? The birth of a baby who is meant to save the world. I can see a Hollywood type perking up ears, “Okay, interesting. Okay, tell me more.”

Well, his parents can’t get a room. Tell me about it. At Christmas? What do you expect? So Mary has to give birth in a stable. What? Not only that, but the reigning King wants to know where the baby is, so that he can kill it. No bodyguards? Killing a kid, let alone a sacred kid, is not usually good for business. This is edgy stuff!

Three Wise Men have traveled about 1000 kilometers from Kurdistan because they saw an unusual star. They travel across mountains and deserts, hostile territory full of bandits and bad weather.  Why? To see the baby. Like uncles or granddads. Except they don’t know it is to be a baby. Just something extraordinary foretold in their holy books and confirmed by the star. So it’s a road story. And a spiritual journey.  Sure, Sure.

2. We’re Going Where?

All of nature seems to hush in Palestine. Animals come to the stable. Shepherds are visited by angels. So it’s also a miracle story. The Kings find the baby Jesus, as do the shepherds. Heaven and earth come together in adoration. This is the ending? Like “2001“?

No. There’s a chase scene of sorts. Because the Wise Men don’t want to report to King Herod the whereabouts of Jesus, Herod decides he must kill all male children under the age of one.  Oh, so he sends out his soldiers to slaughter babies. Terrible! But good for suspense. An angel warns Joseph, and they escape to Egypt, where Jesus grows into boyhood. An exile story, that’s good.

And it goes on.

We also have the traditional European stories of St Nicholas, and the Nordic and Germanic traditions of the sacred tree at Solstice becoming our familiar Christmas tree.  St Nicholas and Santa are quite different in presentation and feeling, and the tree stories connect to the World Tree, and to the opening between the Overworld, our world, and the Underworld.

We also have ghost stories from a long time ago, popularized by Dickens and others in the nineteenth century. A good ghost story always sounds better by a crackling fire when we sit with others we know are enjoying the same story.

Every kind of story is here, except stories of sexual passion.  Stories-with-some-sex have come about more recently with Hollywood’s contribution of love blossoming at the Yuletide season.

The Christmas story contains all the other stories, from quest, to journey, to birth, to murder, to the supernatural, to exile, endurance, sorrow, joy.

Each aspect of the story, from the biblical accounts to the modern versions of Santa Claus, can also be opened up into many other stories, multicultural, multi-faith, mythic, so that the Christmas story becomes a nexus of stories engendering other stories that themselves give birth to stories. It rivals Homer’s THE ODYSSEY for its allusiveness and narrative potential. I’m not talking about religion here, so there’s no need to bring out holiness charts and measure moral depth.  As an exercise, try thinking of Christmas not as a sacred festival, or, for some, an ordeal, but as a great story festival. James Joyce worked this territory with his superb story “The Dead.”

Long ago, people told stories to entertain themselves and also to build community. We’re lost sight of this somewhat because we expect to be told stories, not to tell them. We are passive consumers of television and movies, forgetting that if these popular media are supposed to be telling our stories, not elitist visions of what a story is, we can probably do as well with each other.

What are the great Christmas movies? Usually, people cite IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and some version of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL [the Alistair-Sim-as-Scrooge version comes to mind as a real and wonderful classic (1951)], forgetting that even these feel-good stories have very dark seams and edges.  The first acknowledges the season is one of potential and actual suicide for many; the second is a story of miserliness, disease, death, and haunting. Both stories, to our relief, are redeemed into happy endings.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life

To approach Christmas (and Hanukkah, for that matter) as story festivals can lead one to research stories well beyond the familiar Santa routines and Biblical accounts and to find those stories of personal triumph and learning-from-life to share with others. Small stuff, usually, but that’s how most of our lives are constructed. I’ll end with a personal story from a Christmas season of years ago when I was living in England. It was a dark time for me, and I was finding it difficult not to feel sorry for myself. A friend who ran a pre-school asked if I would dress up as St. Nicholas and make a surprise visit. I’d done some things for children’s theatre before and Yasmin was an unusual person who wasn’t expecting a ho-ho-ho Santa Claus, so I took on the challenge. I fashioned a white beard and dressed myself up in sumptuous purple, velvet robes, leather riding boots, and a red, fur-trimmed hat. I did a good job of hiding the fact I was in my early twenties. The three year olds were all sitting in rows, not sure what to expect, when I strode in and sat in front of them. I told them I was St. Nicholas, come from the stars to give each one a little gift. As each child came up silently, he or she received a small wooden toy, and I blessed each one. That evening, parents called Yasmin wanting to know what had gone on, as their children were all in trances, talking about an old man dressed like a king who had come from the stars. I’m not sure what they got from the performance, but the dress-up and the little stories I told sure helped me. I took it as just another experience, if somewhat a special one. Coincidentally, my life seemed to get back on the rails after that.





2. Mark Payne-Gill.



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