Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Christmas Story

We may not think of it as a “fairy tale,” but the Christmas story is part of the story-telling tradition we’ve all inherited. And, as such, it has lots of the elements of a “sideways-in” story.

First, think of the main characters. Joseph is a carpenter—a man with little, if any, political sway, and probably not all that wealthy. Mary, his fiancée, is a traditional girl, faithful, reverent, maybe a little sheltered. Both of them are completely unprepared for what’s about to happen. Neither of them looks like they’ll have a major role in shaping world events. Kings, empires, political parties, are swirling around at what seem to be the distant “centers” of the real action. In other words, they’re like most of us.

And yet, almost in secret, they’re both descendents of an ancient, powerful king, the ruler of a golden age long since lost.

What’s more, they live in a very small town, days’ journey from any city that matters. They’re ruled by a petty king who answers to a much more powerful, foreign ruler. None of these rulers is authentic, and the kingdom itself is oppressive, with heavy taxes and abusive soldiers, and no regard for traditional values.

And then, something “magical” happens. An angel, a miracle, misunderstandings, a journey, hardship, portents, an evil king trying to kill the miracle child: flight and a narrow escape. All this unfolds, from the seemingly insignificant beginning in a small backwater town far from the centers of power. As if to underline this sideways-in quality, you have the famous crèche scene, with a stable and manger, and shepherds—peasants from the margins of society—coming to pay the newborn king his first homage.

Of course the story goes on. But it starts from the side, not the top—at least, from one point of view, though sometimes the narrator “knows” that things really are unfolding “from the top.” It’s not a perfect analogy, but you can see that this story, deeply embedded in our consciousness, touches themes we love to explore when we read (and write) fairy tales and fantasy.

And that could be a source of hope to many of us: that stories of ultimate importance share the notion that, in the end, it’s the unremarkable, small-town laborer or naïve girl-child on whom the restoration of our world really turns.

As the story puts it, “This shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

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