Christmas: a family affair

Christmas is a family affair, writes the Rev Dr Michael Hull, a priest at St Vincent’s since 2015.

My parents went to great lengths to ensure that Christmas was thrilling for my siblings and me.

They stayed up through the night each Christmas Eve — decorating the house, wrapping presents and hanging stockings — so that everything would be ‘perfect’ on Christmas morning. Christmas Day, church included, was spent with relatives, friends and neighbours, and anyone who stopped-by.

My siblings and I relished (re)arranging the nativity scene: the magi, who started at a distance and were placed closer and closer as the Epiphany neared; the shepherds, who were with their sheep; and, of course, Mary and Joseph, with Baby Jesus. Those Christmases past imbued within us with an awareness of the Holy Family and all who gathered with them as an ideal. With the newborn Christ Child surrounded by loving parents and everyone else described by St Matthew (1.18–2.23) and St Luke (2.1–20), we saw the significance of the nuclear family as well as the extended family, including those who came from next door, like the shepherds, and those who came from afar, like Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

In a way, my memories are akin to those in Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’, his autobiographical story wherein he describes how our minds often blend memories: ‘One Christmas was so much like another . . . that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.’ Thomas recounts family and lots of folk who come and go. He writes, ‘“Were there Uncles, like in our house?” ‘There are always Uncles at Christmas.’” As I have grown older and memories of Christmases past flood my mind, I too cannot remember who was six and twelve or how many nights it may have snowed, but I have no memories that do not involve family, friends, neighbors and erstwhile strangers.

My memories are no doubt melded with the amazing first-Christmas scenes as recorded by St Luke (2.1–20) and St Matthew (1.18–2.23) wherein there are no strangers, no outsiders. Everyone assembled around the gift of God in the Christ Child. In God’s Providence, there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn (Luke 2.7). There was no fixed place for the Messiah. Jesus came to us not in private for a select few, but in public for all. The stable had room for everyone: room for the poor nomadic shepherds, room for the rich stargazers from the East, even room for the animals. Jesus was at home with everyone and everything in God’s Creation. His Holy Family was never a closed circle, but a focal point around which all are welcome.

Jesus’ earthly life was marked by itinerancy. In a time of great disregard for women’s well-being, Mary was forced to travel at great risk (Joseph’s help notwithstanding) to her and Jesus’s health from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a headcount, whereupon they had to flee to Egypt lest a murderous despot have his way. As Jesus said of himself, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head’ (Luke 9.58). Jesus was, now and again, a migrant, a refugee, ‘a man without a country’, a sojourner over whom God watched (Psalm 146.9), mindful of the fact that his Hebrew forbears were once sojourners in Egypt (Exodus 22.21–24) before him. Jesus’ family has always extended outward from his manger.

If Christmas 2020 is to be a family affair, we ought not to let that aspect of the nativity scene escape us: there are no outsiders at Jesus’ birth. Our families are different in shapes and sizes; our circumstances and contexts are dissimilar; yet one thing remains the same: the Jesus who came for all. Those of us who would identify as his followers, as Christians, need to be sure that our family extends outwards from our home to migrants, to refugees, to those without countries, to the sojourners among whom Jesus feels most at home.

Thomas concludes his story noting the sound of music, the warmth of the fire, the taste of wine and, most importantly, I think, the laughter of others. If we share our music, warmth, wine and laughter with our extended family, with erstwhile strangers, as God shares his Son with us, we may end our Christmas Day with the sense of peace suggested by Thomas’s final sentence: ‘I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.’

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.