The boy came home from his grandparents’ house with a 102.6°F fever this evening. He was complaining about being tired and hot when we arrived to collect him and was punchy in the car on the way home, rambling from one unconnected topic to another. He started working himself up about not being able to get a dog in the near future and about dying someday (talk about out of the blue) and so I said, “Why not think about something more cheerful, like Christmas?”
“I don’t know very much about Christmas,” he said. “Not like you guys. You must know all about Christmas, right?”
“Um,” I said. “We know… stuff, yes. Maybe not all about it.”
“Tell me something,” he said.
So in the dark on a relatively lonely highway, I told him about the reason we call it Christ-mas, and followed it with the story about Jesus’ birth. Try to tell that one to a kid who has grown up without being steeped in the Christian mythos. (I know I’ve told him the story before, but it obviously didn’t stick.) He was okay with Mary and Joseph looking for a place to sleep in a busy town because Mary was very pregnant, and the birth in the stable, and Jesus being wrapped up in a cloak and tucked into a manger because there wasn’t a crib ( “I think Jesus must have been very comfortable.”). But he needed context. So I explained that Christ was half a god and half a man ( “Like Hercules!”), and that the wise men who were mages and philosophers and astronomers followed the magic star to the barn where Christ was born and knew when they got there that the baby was very, very special ( “But how did they know?” “They were… very wise and knew a lot of stuff about things like God.” “Oh, okay.”), and that angels were so happy that Christ was born that they sang and led shepherds to the barn too, who loved the baby as soon as they saw him, and that the birth of the baby reminded everyone about love and hope and compassion.
There was silence in the back seat for a bit. Then he said suspiciously, “Is there more to this story?”
HRH cleared his throat, and I said, somewhat truthfully, “Well, that’s the end of the Christmas bit.” (It does sort of need the crucifixion story for the Christmas story to have the proper significance, but there’s no way I’m going to tell him that the Christian mythos also dictates that this wonderful Christmas baby grew up to be killed, and indeed was born for the sole purpose of being sacrificed to cleanse the stain of sin from mankind, thank you very much. Not until he’s old enough to understand that it’s a specific religion’s dogma and not a universal belief, because (a) he takes things very literally and is obviously having a problem with the idea of death right now, and (b) I am very much against the idea of people being born sinful, and indeed not a supporter of the whole Christian concept of sin or the need for salvation. There are some beautiful things about the Christian religion and spirituality that I love and appreciate. This and the accompanying inference that we should be guilty because this had to happen is not one of them. Tangent over.)
Now that he’s got the basic Christian Christmas story, though, tomorrow I’ll curl up with him and explain that the Christmas story is like our celebration of the winter solstice and the return of the light, that the world had become a very mean place and the Christian God wanted everyone to have light and hope in their hearts again, so he sent his son be an inspiration. We’ve explained Christmas as a celebration of love, family, and generosity to those who are less fortunate than we are, and we’re very satisfied with that; Christ’s altruism and desire to heal and encourage love ties in nicely. We can talk about other mythos that the Christian story maps on to as well, like Mithras (Sol Invictus, anyone?), and the general neopagan concept of the Sun God.
That’s what you get for being born the son of someone who has taught comparative religion, though. There’s never a dull moment when it comes to talking about religious festivals. We’ve already talked about how Santa is the spirit of Christmas, how he’s a twentieth century version of Father Christmas/Saint Nicholas, and how he’s portrayed very differently in all the different countries of the world, sometimes as a different person or figure entirely.
He didn’t want dinner. We gave him Tylenol and lots of water, read him a couple of books, and he’s sleeping hard. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow morning, and if he even remembers the conversation in the car.