In the humble sprout, there is a lesson for us all

Now comes the alarum that the Clausmobile could be blown away by US anti-missile defence systems
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The Independent Online

There was a celebrity chef on telly recently who pronounced that the best thing you could do with cucumber was peel it, slice it finely and then throw it in the bin. The salad vegetable, he was suggesting, is simply not fit for human consumption. There are some who feel the same about Brussels sprouts. Cattle food, says a contemptuous gourmand I know.

There was a celebrity chef on telly recently who pronounced that the best thing you could do with cucumber was peel it, slice it finely and then throw it in the bin. The salad vegetable, he was suggesting, is simply not fit for human consumption. There are some who feel the same about Brussels sprouts. Cattle food, says a contemptuous gourmand I know.

This is not the majority view. Which is why chills ran down the nation's spine when news broke of a sprout shortage, caused by continual rain and biting winds that have rendered Lincoln's sprout acreages impossible to harvest by machine. Will Christmas be the same without this evocativevegetable?

That is not all. There is a new threat to Santa. First we had the naive vicar who tried to get schoolchildren to compute the physics of delivering that number of presents down this number of chimneys in the hours of darkness. (He has obviously never heard of Santa's elfin helpers.) But now comes the alarum that the Clausmobile could be blown away by US anti-missile defence systems, as the North American Aerospace Command (Norad) tracks the celebrated gift-giver as he takes off from the North Pole with his reindeer by homing in on Rudolph's red nose.

And there is more. A quarter of clergy, we read yesterday, "do not believe in the virgin birth". Sprouts, Santa and sacred dogma – is nothing safe about the traditional Christmas?

There are some things that we just have to accept as unfathomable mysteries. Is salvation possible for the sad sprout? Can the American sense of humour ever be rescued from heavy-handedness? "Norad radar will detect Santa mere seconds after his lift-off," says its website. "After that, Santa will zip over the Northwest Territories to the Yukon [where] two CF-18s from Canada's Air Force will intercept and escort Santa to Alaska where they will hand off to two American F-15s. Santa will increase his speed to Christmas-Eve-Velocity en route back to the North Pole."

On a par with all that is the idea that Christianity somehow depends on the literal truth of its founder having no earthly father. There are some who believe that. "If you take away the Virgin Birth," said the head of the Lord's Day Observance Society, "you might as well take away the entire Christmas message... if you lose that miracle you lose the Resurrection and everything else."

This seems to me to be bunkum. Gospel accounts of the Resurrection make it clear that the risen Christ was so different from his living form as to be initially unrecognisable, even by those who knew him. The enigma of the Resurrection is far deeper than anything the Virgin Birth suggests.

There are those who look for ways round this. Commonest in modern times is to blame translation problems with the prophecy of Isaiah that "the virgin will be with child" on which it is all based. In the original Masoretic Hebrew text bethulah, which means virgin, is not used; instead the word is almah, which simply means young woman (and is indeed used elsewhere in the Bible to describe the occupants of a harem). But the Greeks translated it as parthenos, which unequivocally does mean virgin.

Then there is the historicity get-out: that only two gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, claim a Virgin Birth, where Mark, who was earlier, and John, who was the only eyewitness of the four evangelists, are silent on the subject.

There have even been ventures into the field of parthenogenesis – the phenomenon of asexual reproduction by which a female's egg undergoes embryonic development without being fertilised by male sperm. It certainly works in some creatures – aphids, ants, wasps, bees, lizards and snakes. There was a recent case recorded in a shark in a zoo. But, despite claims that it has happened with humans, the science seems to dictate that – because the offspring has only the mother's chromosomes – the child would have to be female. Was Jesus secretly a girl? No wonder they're not that keen on women priests.

The truth is different. Christmas traditions gain their purchase from another level of reality. The birth of Christ has been shrouded in sublime mystery because the message at the centre of the story is not to be communicated through explanation. What is celebrated is the birth of the possibility that even the most world-weary of us can see life anew, in a way which is affirmative, positive and loving.

The same is true, in a far more limited way, of Santa. He stands, even in our consumerist age, as a symbol of the ability to give and to ask nothing in return.

And Brussels sprouts? They too can be transformed. Shred them finely, and then stir-fry them with crushed blanched hazelnuts in a little oil. Delicious. Why not give it a try?

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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