A time not to forget the suffering figure on the cross Meanings of Christmas

Today's articles in our series of meditations for Christmas Week are by Kieron Conry, of the Catholic Media Office, and the Very Rev Tom Wright, Dean of Lichfield.
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The Independent Online
A story appeared in the newspapers last Christmas that at first sight appeared to be just a mild bit of fun: foreigners (in this case Japanese) failing to understand our way of life. It was said that a department store in one of the large cities h ad done their Christmas display, and the central feature was Father Christmas nailed to a crucifix.

Assuming that it was done in all innocence, rather than as a parody on the Western celebration of Christmas, what had happened? How could they make such a mess of things?

Of course the true message of Christmas has been lost here, too.

The odds are that if you listen to a sermon over the Christmas period, or if the conversation drifts dangerously into religion, someone will claim that it has all become very tawdry, just an excuse for excess of one kind or another. And it's quite disgraceful, because it is all about the birth of Jesus, after all. The true message of Christmas is clearly to do with events in and around Bethlehem, and then translated into "Peace on earth and goodwill to all men", and women.

On the other hand the crucifixion might have something to do with Christmas, because the child in the crib is, after all, the same person as the one depicted - often only yards away from a crib in church - on the cross. But the two should not be confused. After all, Easter is months away.

And then, how does dear old, jolly and benevolent Santa Claus get mixed up with religion and the crucifixion? Again, surely the two are miles apart. You do not bring the children along to meet Santa and expect them to get preached at. You do not complainbecause Santa only asks them what they want rather than trying to fill their heads with religious nonsense.

For a certain section of the population, the Christmas message is given with inescapable certainty towards the end of the school term. That group is the younger parent group, those with children in primary schools within the broad Christian tradition. One of the easiest dramas to produce in school (presumably), and in front of the most receptive audience, is the nativity play.

The nativity play is a fairly straightforward, nice story, has quite a large and varied cast, and allows for some exotic costumes. In less than half an hour (unless ambition has clouded judgement) you can run through the whole of the Christmas season, from 25 December to 6 January, while still technically celebrating Advent. It is not the whole story, of course, because the less savoury bit (the slaughter of the Innocents) has to be missed out; it would spoil things.

I said the Christmas message, and should have said the Christmas story. The actual message probably has something to do with peace on earth and it being the season of goodwill. But it is not said very clearly. The angels might get the chance to proclaim it in the nativity play. The Infant Jesus is clearly in no position to do it, and the three wise men diplomatically buy presents rather than make any sort of statement.

So who proclaims the Christmas message, and what is it? Jesus is at the heart of the whole celebration, but somehow is carefully dissociated from the figure on the cross, because all that is just too awful to think about at Christmas.

Who can blame the Japanese, for doing no more than gathering all this together into one image, and then associating that with the rest of the Christmas business?

What I would suggest is that Christmas is not the best time to try and get to (never mind understand) the Christmas message. It is far too busy and there is too much going on. And it is all too complicated, what with the baby Jesus, the three wise men, angels and shepherds, Santa Claus, Father Christmas and then the dread of being given a present by someone who is not on your list.

Leave it until after the business is all over and the season of goodwill is officially closed for another year. If the message of Christmas is to do with religion then it cannot ignore the figure on the cross and even the children slaughtered by the awful King Herod: the message just might include the word "suffering" in it.

I would also suggest that, if he has any sense, Father Christmas might give Japan a wide berth.