If you want a cheap tour of the Holy Land, check for a church group going in January – but dress warmly and carry a raincoat. That’s the rainy season there, tourists are scarce, and thus rates are low. Nazareth is about the same 33-degree-north latitude as San Diego and Phoenix, but you won’t be in either. Not even close. December and January are the rainy months and temperatures run in the low 50s.
Like you, I grew up with the usual Christmas card pictures before me: adoring shepherds on a dry hillside on a starry night, or Currier & Ives images of fir trees and sleds and snow. Neither one seems to accurately depict the story we thought we knew.
A less familiar carol comes to mind. If you are a James Taylor fan, you can probably sing, “In the bleak mid-winter/frosty wind made moan,/ Earth stood hard as iron,/ Water like a stone ...” It’s based on a 19th-century Christina Rossetti poem, “A Christmas Carol,” that’s better known by its opening line, “In the bleak mid-winter.” Her imagined season was a tough one: “snow on snow, on snow” atop that earth “hard as iron.” That’s hardly the time and place to sit a pregnant wife on a donkey and travel a hundred miles. Rossetti ignores the journey and immediately goes to the sheltering “stable-place” where Mary is visited by angels and animals, with nary a mention of star or shepherds or wise men – or even Joseph, who is 100 percent absent.
It’s a curious depiction, but we may not question it as our minds are aswim with dozens of other images gleaned from Christmas cards and church pageants and from less churchy sources such as Disney cartoons and Grandma getting run over by a reindeer. It’s become a time when even residents of San Diego and Phoenix put up trees and sing wistfully of a “white Christmas.”
And one can make the claim that it all began with Charles Dickens, the man some say invented modern Christmas. Dickens had the good fortune to be born well after the Puritan restrictions of earlier times, when celebrations of Christmas were actually forbidden and no Englishmen had heard of Christmas trees. Dickens had the blessings of a zest for living and a robust imagination, and the ability to create some of the most vivid characters in English literature. Somehow he wove together plum puddings and fatted geese and days off from work and family gatherings into a joyful, wholesome pageant. He reminded us that it is also a time for some somber reflection, a time to remember the less fortunate, a time which at its best can be redemptive.
This coming year will be a lot better if we all follow Dickens’ admonition to keep Christmas in our hearts and observe it all year long. Here’s to 2021. May it bless you, and may you bless it.
David Black lives in Louisa County.