“OK daddy, the shepherds and the wise men and Jesus, Mary and Joseph were in the stable, but you forgot about the dwarfs?”
Welcome to the surreal world of our breakfast table.
We were all getting ready for the day over cereals, garlic bread, tomatoes, tea and orange juice when the subject of Jesus came up. My six-year-old son’s kindergarten teacher is a Christian so she teaches the Christian stories to her mostly Buddhist, Daoist, Barbieist and Transformerist pupils.
My son regularly comes home with questions about Jesus and is fascinated with the idea of the Resurrection, but Christmas and the birth in the stable is gripping his imagination at the moment. Chinese is his first language so his English translation can sometimes become colourful and chaotic. He knows the Chinese word for angels but neither his mother nor his father are Christian so these heavenly seraphs rarely come up in our English conversation at home. He picked a word that was an approximate translation of the Chinese word for angels and we were presented with the prospect of dwarfs in the manger.
It set me thinking about the stories that we read and how important they can become. I am sure that many a Presbyterian zealot would be horrified at the thought that a child would dare to introduce fairy tale characters into the Greatest Story Ever Told, but we take things a little more laterally here.
In the ten minutes between the sight of the bottom of the cereal bowl and the total ingestion of tomatoes, garlic bread and juice, I précised the lives of Jesus and Mohamed and began to realise that many adults take the world far too seriously.
We sorted out the dwarfs/angels conundrum fairly quickly, but I am sure that the story of Snow White and her diminutive friends has been indelibly superimposed upon the story of Jesus and that is probably no bad thing. In thousands of Nativity plays in thousands of primary schools around the planet, teachers are discovering that there are just not enough characters in the standard Christmas story to give every child a chance to exercise his or her thespian aspirations and so you can find lobsters, Transformers, Barbies and all manner of esoteric characters hovering at the edge of the limelight around the shepherds, the holy family, the three wise men and the angels, so why not a few dwarfs?
I explained to my son that this was a story. He knows all about myths and legends and loves any story in which nobody has to die. I then told him that a man called Mohammed came along just about six centuries after Jesus had died and told another story in which Jesus was not the Son of God, but a prophet. Like Jesus, Mohammed was essentially a good man who wandered his bailiwick encouraging people to be kind to travellers and others who were in need of a little home comfort and some kindness.
I was very grateful to Mohammed when I was travelling in Syria in 2006, for I was not referred to as a tourist, but a guest. Mohammed was a traveller and one of the fundamental tenets of Islam is kindness to travellers, who should be treated as honoured guests. As a guest in Syria, I was offered hospitality, understanding and patience and I have never forgotten my time in that beautiful country, which was a bastion of the Christian crusade against the tellers of Mohammed’s story that began about four centuries after Mohammed’s death.
My son now knows about Mohammed and Jesus and is probably profitably using his spare time in the kindergarten to establish a plot device that links the two stories and allows the introduction of other story characters with whom he is familiar. Next year, I expect to hear about Jesus, Mohammed, the dwarfs and Bemax. Bemax was a good guy in Big Hero 6, so there is absolutely no plausible reason why he shouldn’t be included in the gathering at the manger in Bethlehem, complete with an auxiliary power supply, unlimited computing capacity to avoid the slaughter of the Holy Innocents and 21st Century medical care for Mary and her new-born son.
This Christmas, while we tell the Christian story, we are all expecting other tellers of Mohammed’s story to wreak havoc in some unknowable arena in our midst and I am once again bewildered at the stupidity of adults. These are stories. They make us happy and give us hope, but are they worth dying for? Definitely not. Are they worth fighting for? Definitely not. If someone else has a different version of the Christian story wherein a deity becomes a prophet, is that something about which we should be angry or is it simply a factor of perspective and the passage of time between the first edition and the second? If merely changing Jesus’ title from a deity to a prophet makes some people angry, what are they going to say about my son’s interpretation of these stories?
This Christmas, I will be in a land that many of my not-too-distant ancestors would have described as pagan. I am among Buddhists and Daoists, Barbieists and Transformerists for whom Christmas is a good story that allows us to forget our everyday trials for a short time. There is no massive rush for the latest toys, no frenzy of panic buying, none of the pressure of frustrated parents spending money that they do not have to provide a feast that is not necessary. People wish each other a happy Christmas because that is what they wish for themselves. The story of Jesus can quite happily accommodate a few errant dwarfs and parents and teachers do not bat an eyelid.
Christmas Day will pass mostly unnoticed in Taiwan. Like most of the nation who are lucky enough to have employment, we will be working on Friday and Saturday. We will go out for a Christmas dinner with my wife’s mother and sister on Saturday and we will relax. On Sunday, when we finally have the time to enjoy the occasion properly, we will all open the small presents that Santa will have brought on Christmas Eve and we will remember that the small financial value of those presents means nothing, compared to the value of the love that they express. We are non-Christians who are surrounded by other non-Christians and yet, here in Taiwan, Christmas is much more like the Christmases of my youth than any adult Christmas that I have experienced in Europe, South America or Australasia.
If we all learned to treat the two Great Stories of Jesus Mohammed as entertaining parables that transfer noble values and not as rigid manifestoes for world domination, we might all be able to relax a little and enjoy them in the same way that we enjoy the stories about Snow White, Jack, Hansel and Gretel and the Ugly Duckling. If we all lost some of the vehemence of our attachment to our own editions of the Great Stories, we might actually begin to remember what they mean and what they were meant to convey.
Have a lovely Christmas, whether your story has Mohammed, Jesus, a few dwarfs, or a little clown fish called Nemo as its narrative device.