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The true meaning of Christmas

Along with the Gombeys and cassava pies, Bermuda citrus was once a fixture of the local Christmas season.

The smell and taste of Washington navel oranges, in particular, will forever be associated with the holiday among those who grew up here when the fruit was plentiful.

They were used as colourful table settings. The peel was an ingredient in everything from plum pudding to Christmas punch. And Bermuda children still gorged themselves on oranges even when their appetite for other seasonal treats such as toffees, chocolates and mince pies was beginning to pall.

Oranges were included as gifts in many a Bermudian child's Christmas stocking, so much so they were as synonymous with the season as the smell of pine needles and the sound of carols. Until they suddenly weren't.

A number of years ago a blight rendered most of the citrus trees in Bermuda sterile. Locally grown oranges are now scarce to the point of near non-existence. But the passing of this long-standing local Christmas tradition has gone unremarked on, unmourned and perhaps even unnoticed by a great many Bermudians.

Sadly, much the same can be said about the actual meaning of the holiday.

At one extreme, Christmas has long-since been hijacked by retailers, greeting card companies and toy and high-tech manufacturers who attempt to inculcate the public into believing ‘tis the season to empty their savings accounts and max out their credit cards on expensive, largely unnecessary fripperies.

These days the gift of an orange, symbolic of the fruitfulness of new life as well as the new hope attendant on Christ's birth, would likely be scoffed at by those expecting an iPad, Kindle or similar gizmo in their stocking. Or be met with complete bewilderment.

At the other extreme, there are so-called Christians who have also managed to denude the season of its meaning. Fundamentalists of any creed or stripe, of course, claim to be privy to the Received Truth from God. And absolute certainty tends to breed absolute intolerance of all those who have the temerity to question such dogmatism.

The violence always implicit in fundamentalism has become increasingly explicit in recent decades. Whether in the Middle East or Middle America, there are religious extremists who love their neighbours as themselves to the extent they will cheerfully cut their throats if they don't worship in what is deemed to be the properly prescribed manner: witness the recent massacre of the innocents in Pakistan, an atrocity worthy of Herod which was carried out by those claiming to have God on their side.

Bermuda's plethora of religious denominations with their contradictory, often mutually exclusive belief systems, are largely respectful of one another as well as the non-Christians among us. But there are pockets of zealotry and intolerance here which are openly hostile to any deviation from their particular interpretation of the received word.

The British psychiatrist Anthony Storr wisely argued: “I do not believe that there is any one political system, religious faith, psychoanalytic school, scientific attitude, or philosophical point of view which has sole access to the truth.

“My dogma is that all dogma is suspect; and it seems to me that most of the harm done in the world is done by those who are dogmatically certain that they are right. For being absolutely right means that those who disagree are absolutely wrong. Those who are absolutely wrong are of course dangerous to society, and must be restrained or eliminated.”

What might be called Storr's Law is worth bearing in mind as we negotiate the season, as we are bombarded by the conflicting messages of those whose faith is invested in the Christmas economy and whose sacred tenets are the supremacy of the market and the sanctity of property and those denominations which have tried to remake the holiday in their own flawed image.

The central miracle of the Nativity transcends the greed of those who would turn Christmas into an endless shopping extravaganza and those who claim their denomination alone has an exclusive understanding of God's will.

For it is the tale of the hope and promise attendant on the birth of every child, no matter how mean the newborn's circumstances or how disadvantaged his or her parents, and about the unredeemed nature of the world we live in and the potential all children have to redeem it.

The true meaning of the holiday, uncorrupted by either those who would crassly commercialise all aspects of Christmas or those who claim a monopoly on understanding its religious implications, can still be found in a few verses of the Gospel of Luke: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.”

And that, as the great philosopher Linus Van Pelt said, is what Christmas is all about.

Tale of hope: The Nativity, performed at Windreach last weekend, teaches us that with the birth of every child, no matter how mean their circumstances or how disadvantaged their parents, there is the potential they can redeem the world we live in (Photo by Nicola Muirhead)

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Published December 22, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated December 22, 2014 at 9:32 am)

The true meaning of Christmas

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