When the holidays come, I always feel the urge to "keep Christ in Christmas" – to actually teach my young children the spiritual significance of the occasion. For me, the holiday represents the coming of grace into the world. I always get a little thrill when I hear the words of the angel: "I bring you good tidings of great joy." The sense that God is at work in the world, that the highest is somehow moving among the lowest, and conspiring to make something great happen . . . that's the Christmas spirit to me.
But then I sit down with the Bible, and try to prepare myself to tell the story of Jesus' birth to my eight-year-old and my four-year-old. I'm thinking, how hard can this be? Everyone knows the image of a cute little baby lying in a manger, surrounded by animals and kvelling shepherds and kings. What could be cuddlier than that?
But then I read the story, and I find that all the plot-points are premised on some seriously adult themes. The story begins with Mary betrothed to Joseph, and Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and is planning to call off the wedding. You can't even begin to get into the story without having to explain the facts of life, the prospect of infidelity and betrayal and unwed mothers. How do you gloss over that?
Then you have the whole narrative arc of the wise men, the kings seeking out Jesus. That whole narrative hinges on the evil king Herod trying to find this new messiah and kill him, and concludes with the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. What, exactly, is this supposed to teach our children? That if God really likes you, he'll tip you off when the bust is coming down? That if you're not the Son of God, the Almighty is going to let evil kings skewer you in your crib?
Don't get me wrong – it's a great story, full of intrigue, suspense, interpersonal tension, faith and doubt . . . it's just not a children's story. And once you sanitize it from all the adult themes, you are left with just the one scene of the Nativity: mangers and donkeys and camels and a baby. (Well, maybe two scenes – you've got the angel coming to shepherds as well. That's pretty clean.) Maybe that one image is enough. Obviously, it IS enough, because our culture has been able to sell a lot of Nativity scenes and make Christmas a child-centered holiday for decades. And I suppose it's peanuts to sanitize the Christmas story, compared to, say, Easter, which is chock-a-block with betrayal, political intrigue, torture, and capital punishment. But the Nativity seems to lose a lot of its meaning, if you don't know how Mary and Joseph came to be there, and the kings as well.