My culture’s Christmas season begins with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
Our traditionally-frenzied holiday shopping season does, at any rate. That’s not a particularly good thing, considering what stress can do to folks.
On the other hand, America’s shopping frenzy inspired “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.”
I’ll be talking about that, more-or-less-recent news, and events we’re still celebrating, two millennia later.
Then, on Saturday, Christmas Eve, I plan to be back with a little holiday art.
- Not Going Nuts at Christmas
- Ordinary Folks, Unique Events
- The Best News Ever
Not Going Nuts at Christmas
“Oh, I yust go nuts at Christmas
On that yolly holiday
I’ll go in the red like a knucklehead
‘Cause I’ll squander all my pay
“Oh, I yust go nuts at Christmas
Shopping sure drives me berserk
On the day before, I rush in a store
Like a pure bewildered yerk….”
(“I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas,” Yogi Yorgesson (1949) via JioSaavn.com)
On the whole, I like the season’s glitz and plastic pomp. Possibly because I haven’t bought into the ‘shop til you drop’ norm.
But I also think C. S. Lewis made a good point or two about “the commercial racket.”
“Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. … The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business too have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business.… But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business.
“I mean of course the commercial racket.…”
(“What Christmas Means to Me,” C. S. Lewis (1957) via The Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis and Tim Collinses/University of Rochester [emphasis mine])
I don’t see a problem with many traditions, like decorating Christmas trees. But some traditions I’d gleefully do without.
That’s why I’m not following my country’s old traditions by denouncing “…the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings … and similar Satanical Practices….”
Or conforming to our new ones: like protesting The [redacted] Village in Philadelphia.
Or complaining about [redacted] wreaths on New York City’s Holland Tunnel. Although, in fairness, the Tunnel trouble was more about spelling that seasonal celebrations.
Which brings me to the problem of sorting cause-effect relationships from things that happen around the same time but aren’t connected.
Folks working in emergency departments, for example, deal with a great many more patients around Christmas and New Year. And a whole lot of dead-on-arrival patients.
There are almost certainly cause-effect relationships involved.
One study, for example, showed holiday spikes in deaths due to substance abuse and “external factors.” External factors being events like accidents, homicides, and suicides.
I’m not sure why we don’t see op-eds calling for tougher holiday control laws, or a reboot of America’s 1920 to 1933 Prohibition experiment.1
Condo Killings: Murders, Motives, Maledictions and Making Sense
Another nonstarter, so far, is outrage over deadly attacks on condo board and block committee members.
“Vaughan condo shooting: Three victims were on condo board“
Nadine Yousif, BBC News (December 19, 2022)
“The man who went on a shooting spree at a Canada apartment complex killed five of his neighbours, including members of the building’s board, police said.
“The 73-year-old suspect went from apartment to apartment looking for his victims, though police have not disclosed his motive.
“The alleged gunman, a longtime resident of the building, was shot and killed by police….”
“Italy shooting: Three women shot dead in Rome cafe“
(December 12, 2022)
“…Those inside were meeting as part of a local block’s residents’ committee….
“A suspect, 57, is in custody. He has a history of disputes with some of the committee’s board, reports say….”
I figured BBC News has the good sense to realize that it’s early days to start guessing what sparked the Vaughn condo killings. Although one explanation seems likely.
“Victims of shooting at apartments in Vaughan, Canada, named“
(December 21, 2022)
“Canadian police have identified all five people killed at an Ontario apartment complex in an attack that appears to have been sparked by a dispute with the block’s board.
“Three of the victims in Vaughan, Ontario, had worked for the board….
“…According to court documents, the suspect had filed several lawsuits against the building’s condominium corporation that a judge later described as ‘frivolous’….”
“Vaughan shooting: Gunman had long-running feud with condo board“
(December 20, 2022)
“…The board had also asked a judge to find Villi in contempt for violating a previous order not to contact them, according to the Toronto Star newspaper.
“Court documents show the building corporation filed a restraining order against the suspect in November 2018, due to his ‘threatening, abusive, intimidating and harassing behaviour’….”
I haven’t, again so far, seen an editorial call for better laws against “threatening, abusive, intimidating and harassing behaviour.”
On the other hand, I have been seeing the culturally-normative maledictions directed at a particular technology. And that’s another topic.
I’ll be glad that, despite both mass-murders happening during Advent: there isn’t a “Save Lives, Abolish Advent” campaign in progress. Not that I’ve seen, at any rate.
About murder, mass- and otherwise, I think it’s a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2268-2279)
That’s partly because I think my life matters. But it’s not all about me.
Since I’m a Catholic, I must see all human life as special: sacred, a gift from God. I must see everyone as a real person, a neighbor, someone who matters. Someone who’s created in the image of God. And someone I must love. No exceptions. (Genesis 1:27; Matthew 5:43–44, 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 6:31, 10:25–37; Catechism, 1789, 2258, 2260)
As ideas go, it’s pretty simple. And incredibly hard to do. Consistently, anyway.
But I still think it’s a good idea.
And now for something completely different: a 2016 “Modern Nativity” scene.
Hipster Nativity: Trendily Non-Traditional in 2016
I can almost see why some folks apparently saw the magi on Segways was “sacrilegious.”
But I can also see why Boston’s better sort saw dressing up for Christmas and exchanging greetings as “Satanical Practices.”
Making educated guesses about perceptions and attitudes is one thing. Accepting them as my own doesn’t strike me as reasonable. Not in this case.
Granted, the “Modern Nativity” may fall short of displaying the Holy Family with dignity. But to my eyes, it’s better than some seasonal ‘Jesus junk’ that hasn’t been denounced.
Besides, I think The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue was right.
“…Those who want a new twist on the traditional crèche can buy a 10-piece Hipster Nativity scene that features Joseph sporting a lumberjack beard taking a selfie; baby Jesus and a peace-flashing Mary, holding a Starbucks cup, are included. The three wise men show up on Segways holding Amazon boxes full of presents; there is also a cow draped in a sweater with a ‘100% Organic’ seal on it.
“This depiction is more trendy than it is offensive….”
(“Hijacking Christmas Turns Ugly,” Bill Donohue, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (2016))
Ordinary Folks, Unique Events
Lotto painted “The Nativity” in 1523.
That’s when he signed and dated “Adoration of the Christ Child,” at any rate.
Maybe he called it “Adoration of the Christ Child,” maybe not.
I don’t know where “Adoration…” came from; although it’s probably related to “Adorazione,” Francesco Colalucci’s moniker for the painting.
Colalucci discussed what another scholar called a “mousetrap.” It’s in the painting’s lower right corner. He said the “mousetrap” isn’t a mousetrap, and so it isn’t an anti-demon talisman.
According to Colalucci, it’s a mortised hunk of wood. Which makes sense, since Joseph was a carpenter.
Mousetrap or not, “The Nativity” is a fairly conventional nativity scene. The infant Jesus is in a wooden box. Mary and Joseph kneel nearby.
But there’s something odd in the background of Lotto’s “The Nativity,” over Joseph’s shoulder: a crucifix.
I don’t have a problem with that. Or with the chap carrying a (spear? fishing pole?) back on the hillside.
Artists have considerable leeway in what’s appropriate in a Nativity scene. My guess is that there’s an informal consensus that the picture’s tone should be dignified, with Jesus, Mary and Joseph front and center.
Canon law says Christmas and Epiphany are feast days, but I haven’t found rules about what must and must not be in Nativity scenes.
Which doesn’t mean such rules don’t exist.
Anyway, what about that crucifix?
It’s a reminder of our Lord’s messy and painful death. As such, it clashes both with contemporary culture’s opulently festive holiday spirit, and with the conventionally cute winged trio singing and winging overhead.
The tiny trio near the top, by the way, are putti: ancient artistic conventions rebooted in the Renaissance. Donatello’s generally given credit for European religious art’s tradition of depicting cherubim as putti: pudgy little boys with wings.2
Artists and Art, Telling a Story
Lotto’s two adults — I’m back to “The Nativity” now — are wearing colorful outfits and all three look European.
So do the folks in most religious art I see.
I don’t have a problem with that.
Partly because my recentish ancestors came from Europe. And partly because most folks where I live look a little like me.
Besides, I think religious art, nativity pictures included, are illustrations. Their job is telling a story, or showing readers and viewers what the text is about.
Late medieval and Renaissance artists almost certainly knew that folks living around the eastern Mediterranean didn’t look Germanic. Or even French.
But they made the Holy Family look like their neighbors and patrons, anyway. Or enough like them to seem familiar. That’s because Advent and Christmas stories involve ordinary folks and anything-but-ordinary events.
One way to illustrate that contrast is having the ordinary folks look, well, ordinary.
For artists living in Europe, that means showing Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all with European features. And, sometimes, wearing contemporary clothes in familiar settings.
At least some illustrators at the other end of Eurasia have our Lord looking like someone who’s not overly out of place in their neighborhood.3 Most likely for the same reason that Jesus looks European in European religious art.
Again, I think Mary and Joseph are holy people. And Jesus is unique. But they’re also ordinary folks: ordinary on everyday economic and social scales.
Then there’s Zachariah. We hear about him in Saturday morning’s Mass readings.
“Then Zechariah his father, filled with the holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:
“‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and brought redemption to his people….'”
Zachariah’s a few steps up from Joseph and Mary of Nazareth on his era’s social scale.
He’s “a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” (Luke 1:5)
Zachariah hadn’t talked since his interview with Gabriel:
“Then Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’
“And the angel said to him in reply, ‘I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.
“But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.'”
Well, Zechariah had asked “How shall I know this….”
And Gabriel gave him a explanation, along something to remind him of just who he’d been talking to.
I’ve talked about that before. (December 18, 2016)
This is the fourth and last week in Advent, so we’ve been getting into what my culture thinks of as the Christmas story: Matthew 1:18–24; Luke 1:5–25, Luke 1:26–38; and so on.
That bit from Matthew’s Gospel is where Joseph learns that he’s involved in a very special mission.
All things considered, he took the news rather well. Certainly better than Moses had.
Moses tried to talk his way out of his job in the ‘burning bush’ interview. By my count (and in the current New American Bible), he said “but” four times and finally pleaded with God to send someone else. (Exodus 3:11, 13, 4:1, 4:10, and 4:13)
He hadn’t said “but,” obviously. Today’s version of English was millennia in his future, and that’s yet another topic.
Joseph had at least as much reason to balk as Moses did.
“Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.
“Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
Footnotes explain that a betrothed man and woman were considered husband and wife.
Look at the situation from Joseph’s viewpoint. Here he was, betrothed to someone he thought was a fine young woman: and she’s pregnant. Infidelity at this point was adultery, which could mean death by stoning.
If Mary hadn’t been pregnant, the betrothal would probably have lasted a few months, after which she would move into Joseph’s home.
I suspect, but haven’t researched this, that Mary could still have moved in with Joseph. Folks would simply have assumed that the couple got impatient.
But Joseph knows he’s not the father, which must have hurt. He had reason to think Mary was lacking in good sense, or had Gomer’s habits. (Hoseah 1:2–3)
That sort of thing doesn’t get a person permanently blacklisted, though.
Rahab was a prostitute. We meet her in Joshua 2:1. She met someone named Salmon, settled down, had a son named Boaz, and all three show up in our Lord’s family tree. Like it says in James 2:25, what we do matters: and she did good. (Matthew 1:5)
“A Righteous Man”
Okay. Joseph was “a righteous man,” devoutly observing the Mosaic law: uncomfortable about Mary’s apparent infidelity and unwilling to let her get killed.
Let’s see how Joseph’s plans for resolving his awkward situation worked out.
“Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.…’
“…When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”
(Matthew 1:20, 24) [emphasis mine]
Let that sink in: “For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”
The ‘other man’ was — God.
Maybe Joseph didn’t argue because the angel showed up in a dream. Maybe he feared that the Almighty would get angry if he didn’t go through with the rest of the marriage.
Or maybe he saw orders from God the way Mary did.
And knew that trusting God made sense in the long run. Let’s remember that there’s more to the Old Testament than ‘thou shalt not’ and death by stoning —
“But you, LORD, are my Lord,
deal kindly with me for your name’s sake;
in your great mercy rescue me.”
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.”
“You that fear the Lord, wait for his mercy,
do not stray lest you fall.”
I’ve talked about our Lord, the woman caught in adultery, mercy, Matthew 5:27–28, and getting a grip, before. (April 23, 2017; November 21, 2016; October 23, 2016)
Sometimes waiting for God’s mercy means waiting a long time.
“Azariah stood up in the midst of the fire and prayed aloud:
“‘Blessed are you, and praiseworthy,
Lord, the God of our ancestors,
and glorious forever is your name.
“For you are just in all you have done;
“all your deeds are faultless, all your ways right,
and all your judgments proper….
“…Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
“To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.”
(Daniel 3:25–Daniel 3:36)
Azariah’s Babylonian name in that bit from Daniel is Abednego.
He, along with Shadrach and Meshach, had decided that not bowing to a king’s statue was a good idea. I think they were right.
And Azariah’s prayer was answered. Eventually, when Cyrus the Great okayed a return to Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1–6:22)
Now, finally, I’ll talk about Mary.
I don’t know why Zachariah asked a question and got silenced, while Mary asked a question and didn’t.
“But Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’
“And the angel said to her in reply, ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.’
“And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
“for nothing will be impossible for God.’
“Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”
I suspect Zachariah’s and Mary’s attitudes, and how they phrased their questions, made a difference.
And so, maybe, did Gabriel’s knowledge that Mary would shortly be his boss: “Queen over all things.” (Catechism, 966)
Angles aren’t human, not even close, but they’re people. (Catechism, 328-336)
And that’s yet again another topic.
Anyway, after Gabriel outlined how she could have a son:
“Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”
No “buts,” no “what ifs,” just “may it be done to me according to your word.”
Mary was probably in her teens at the time.
She lived in a society that was unsympathetic toward women in her position, at best.
She would have known the risks she would face.
Her “may it be done to me” was “submissive,” since she submitted to God’s authority.
But I do not think she was “submissive” in the sense of being passive or servile.4
Recognizing competent authority is one thing. Mindlessly doing what I’m told would be a bad idea for anybody. (Catechism-, 85-87, 156, 1897-1904, 2256)
I think Mary’s “may it be done to me” took guts and grit: qualities she’d need, a third of a century later.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
The Best News Ever
I still haven’t talked about that crucifix in Lotto’s painting.
Many Nativity scenes get along without a reminder of our Lord’s exquisitely unpleasant death.
Displaying a dead body clashes with my culture’s traditional “mistletoe and holly” holiday theme.
“Oh, by gosh, by golly
It’s time for mistletoe and holly
Tasty pheasants, Christmas presents
Countrysides covered with snow….”
(“Mistletoe and Holly,” Dok Stanford, Hank Sanicola, Frank Sinatra (1957))
Make that clashes with contemporary culture’s holiday theme. Holly, at least, dovetails nicely with both Christmas and crucifixes. And I still haven’t discussed symbolism and Druids. (December 12, 2020)
The opening essay in “The Magnificat® Advent Companion” (2020) discusses Lotto’s “The Nativity” crucifix.
“…The shadow of the cross colors each chapter of the Christmas mystery. The joyful event of the Incarnation brings sorrow to Saint Joseph….”
(Christmas and the Cross, James Monti in “The Magnificat® Advent Companion” (2020))
Two millennia after our Lord’s birth, seeing the Incarnation and associated events as joyful is easy. Fairly easy. We know what happened after our Lord stopped being dead.
But two millennia back, in Judea?
The world was about to be changed.
Because Mary said “let it be done.”
And because Joseph did his job.
“Do Not Be Afraid….”
And most of all because our Lord carried a cross to Golgotha, died and — but I’m getting ahead of the story again.
Starting this Sunday, we’ll be celebrating our Lord’s arrival.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”
That, and what happened later, is the best news humanity’s ever had.
I’ve talked about that before. So has my late father-in-law:
- “Just Who is This Jesus Person, and Who Does He Think He is?“
(October 8, 2022)
- “Joy and Shadow, Free Will and Something Silly“
(December 12, 2020)
- “Jesus Didn’t Stay Dead“
(April 21, 2019)
- “‘Do Not be Afraid’“
Guest post (January 7, 2018 )
- “Gabriel, Joseph, and Mary“
(December 18, 2016)
1 Holiday discord, Yogi Yorgesson, Christmas and making sense:
Prayer & Worship, USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)
- “Holland Tunnel decorations are a giant pain in the ‘A’ for this man, so he launched a crusade to fix Christmas for commuters“
Claude Brodesser-Akner / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com (December 11, 2018; updated December 12, 2018)
- “Christmas and New Year as risk factors for death“
David Phillips, Gwendolyn E. Barker, Kimberly M. Brewer; Social Science & Medicine (August 2010)
- Feast Days, Chapter I, Title II Sacred Times, Part III Sacred Places and Times, Part IV Function of the Church, Canon Law
- “The Nativity“
Lorenzo Lotto (1523), Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art
- “Muscipula diaboli? Una pseudo-trappola per topi nell’Adorazione di Lorenzo Lotto a Washington“
Francesco Colalucci, Artibus et Historiae Vol. 11, No. 21 (1990) Published By: IRSA s.c. via JSTOR (Abstract, English)
3 “Distinctive” illustrations:
- “Distinctive Xinxiang Series of Biblical Illustrations“
Hye-jin Juhn, East Asian Studies Librarian; Rare Books & Special Collections (RBSC) at Notre Dame; Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, Indiana (March 25, 2019)
4 Cultural norms, words, and me:
I remember the ‘good old days,’ when folks who acted as if they’d read Ephesians 5:22, but not Ephesians 5:21-30, were taken more seriously. I do not miss the ‘good old days.’ Men and women have equal dignity, and I’m expected to love my wife as Jesus loved the Church. (Catechism, 1601-1617, 2331-2336)
A former prostitute in Jesus’ family tree certainly is a highlight in the religious knowledge I consider new to my slow mind right now. And talking about how Mama Mary and her story would be seen by and stand the test of today’s popular eyes is something I enjoy. And hey, what happened two millenia ago isn’t even the last of His work yet, no? God Almighty keep on challenging and guiding us all, then.
Yeah! 🙂 Rahab’s background – and presence in the genealogy – isn’t stressed, or often mentioned, in my culture. Not sure why, but I suspect it’s because it doesn’t fit a ‘perfectly perfect people’ standard that might be nice – – – – but doesn’t reflect the real people with real issues who deal with their reality anyway – – – – – and I’m starting to ramble.
As for “isn’t even the last of His work” ?? Oh, my, no. I don’t think so. Looks like there’s much more to come – individually and on a cosmic scale. (Good to hear from you, by the way.)
I also think the proud rebel standards are in play there. As in fighting fire with fire, you know?
And good to hear from you too, Mr. Gill! Honestly, I’m not much of a hard science guy, but at the very least, you got enough of a knack for soft science in my books. Still, may God challenge and guide not just your writing but also my reading, too.