Tag Archives: Christmas

There was no innkeeper, and he wasn’t inhospitable

Anyone who knows the Christmas story knows about the inhospitable innkeeper who wouldn’t allow poor pregnant Mary to stay in the only inn in town. Unfortunately, that’s not what the story originally said in the ancient Greek, according to Stephen Carlson of Duke University in The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Καταλυμα in Luke 2.7, New Testament Studies 56 (2010), pp. 326-342.

This apparently is a scholarly argument that has been going on for centuries, and at least one Renaissance scholar was reprimanded by the Inquisition for daring to show that “καταλυμα” in this context does not mean “inn.” Carlson summarizes his thesis as follows:

Putting these exegetical conclusions together, the entire clause should be rendered as ‘because they did not have space in their accommodations’ or ‘because they did not have room in their place to stay’. This clause means that Jesus had to be born and laid in a manger because the place where Joseph and Mary were staying did not have space for him. Luke’s point is not so much any inhospitality extended to Joseph and Mary but rather that their place to stay was too small to accommodate even a newborn.

Rats, there goes this Sunday’s Christmas pageant.

Aloha Xmas

Ms. M and Oz let us know that they were going to hear slack-key guitarist Patrick Landeza play Hawai’ian Christmas music at the San Leandro Public Library, and would we like to meet them there? I found out that Herb Ohta Jr. would be playing too — Herb Ohta Jr., son of Ohta-san himself and one of the best ‘ukulelists alive! — and told Carol that we had to go.

We arrived in time to eat the Hawai’ian dinner plate (rice, chicken teriyaki, macaroni salad, but no spam). The hall was filling up, and it was a nice crowd — older people, middle-aged people, young parents, kids. Haoles were definitely a minority. By the time Ms. M and Oz showed up, there were some two hundred people in the hall and we could not find seats together.

Carol entered us in the raffle, and before the music started Patrick Landeza raffled off several items. A young girl got a bag for wine bottles. Next to be raffled off was a little bag with a bright floral pattern, obviously perfect for a young girl. Landeza joked that it was a “man purse,” then started laughing when he pulled out the name: “It’s going to a man: Dan Harper!” I went up and claimed my little floral purse. And against all odds, Carol also won something in the raffle: a little Hawai’ian wreath for a Christmas tree ornament.

The music was perfect Christmas music — what could be better than traditional Hawai’ian songs at Christmas time? What could be better than hearing a master like Herb Ohta Jr. play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the ‘ukulele? What could be better than hearing “Silent Night” sung in Hawai’ian, and interpreted by a hula dancer? And to top it all off, I got my man purse signed by Patrick Landeza and Herb Ohta Jr.:

Scrooge fail

This evening, Carol and I went out to dinner at our favorite cheap Chinese sushi place. I kind of prefer going to Asian restaurants in December, because there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t see any holiday decorations, nor hear any holiday music. My hopes were fulfilled: no holiday decorations, no Christmas carols for background music. But the woman next to us was talking about making latkes. And then we went out after dinner and heard holiday music coming from the street: “Later on, we’ll conspire / As we dream by the fire / To face unafraid the plans that we’ve made….” It was the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in downtown San Mateo. There was a firetruck. There were lots of families with children. There was a countdown, and Santa climbed up the ladder of the fire truck and flipped the switch to turn on the Christmas tree lights. An amateur choir sang “Silent Night,” accompanied by someone strumming a guitar. The kids were singing, but it wasn’t just kids singing because Carol said she saw one middle-aged woman standing by herself and singing along. I guess I might have hummed along a little bit; it was all kind of nice.

More bah humbug from Mr. C.

Mr. Crankypants is tired of these Christmas lies that we are feeding to children. So it’s time to tell the truth. No, Virginia, there is no —

—wait, what’s that sound? Who’s that over in the corner? What’s— It sounds like the pitter-patter of little feet—

—oh my God! The elves! The elv—

Bah, humbug

‘Tis the season to hate Christmas, and your pal Mr. Crankypants is right out there in front of the crowd of Christmas-haters. The two different stories you can read in Matthew and Luke are just fine (though it does irk Mr. C. that Christmas-lovers continually get their angels mixed up with their magi, and their basic Christmas holiday mixed up with their Epiphany holiday). The consumerist Christmas, on the other hand, has no redeeming value, unless you’re a retailer with a heart of black ink.

Into the Christmas consumerist fray steps a brave economist, Professor Joel Waldfogel of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In his book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Give Presents for the Holidays, Waldfogel “looks at decades of retail spending data to make the case that buying gifts destroys wealth and happiness — and in many cases it would be better to not buy presents for the holidays at all. So put down that credit card and think before you use money you don’t have to buy things that recipients don’t really want.”

Now, repeat after Mr. Crankypants: “Bah! humbug! Christmas humbug!”

Thanks to Carol for the tip!

Making your list and checking it twice

Church consultant Mike Durrall has proposed an interesting idea. Why not figure out how much money you’re going to spend on Christmas presents this year, and budget that same amount of money to give to your congregation’s social justice programs? Wouldn’t that be a great present to give to your congregation, and to the wider world?

This makes sense to me from a religious perspective. Christmas has not been completely secularized, and from my Unitarian Universalist perspective the Christmas story does have some interesting religious themes: the hospitality of the stable, and the lack of hospitality at the inn; and the magi giving expensive gifts to a family that is not particularly well off. And thinking about this gives me a specific idea of how we could donate money for social justice uses to our congregations at Christmas.

The minister’s discretionary fund in most congregations is used (at least in part) to provide confidential financial aid to people who need money right now. If, for example, a young couple were traveling and suddenly discovered that they had no money to rent a room at the Best Western Bethlehem, they could stop at the Bethlehem Unitarian Universalist Society and get money from the minister’s discretionary fund. However, in the present state of the economy, most minister’s discretionary funds have been sadly depleted. Often that money goes to members and friends of the congregation who are financially desperate, some of whom may have no other place to turn.

Why couldn’t we all budget some Christmas money to give to the minister’s discretionary fund of our local congregations? We can take a tax deduction, people who need it will receive confidential help, and we’ll feel good about giving one of the best Christmas presents ever. What do you think? Would a minister’s discretionary fund be a reasonable destination for this kind of Christmas giving?

P.S.: It occurs to me that if you don’t belong to a local congregation, or are a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, or if your local congregation doesn’t have a minister’s discretionary fund, you could give money to CLF’s prison ministry (PDF flier on how to sponsor a prisoner) as a sort of equivalent idea.

The good dinner phenomenon

Carol and I have noticed this phenomenon many times in the past: I just get back from eating a huge Christmas dinner with some friends — pot roast, Yorkshire pudding, roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, fried sweet potatoes, stollen, cookies — and even though I thought I couldn’t eat another bite while I was there, as soon as I got home I felt hungry and ate an apple. Is it merely that we associate arriving home with eating something? I don’t know, but I’m going to go make a jelly sandwich to eat with my tea.

The story of the Christmas candles

Here’s the story I’ll be telling to start off our Christmas Eve candlelighting services this evening….

Each year on Christmas Eve, we come together as Unitarian Universalists to hear the old, familiar Christmas story through words and songs. We also light candles together. It’s pretty obvious why we tell the Christmas story — because it’s Christmas time! But why do we light candles? For one answer this question, I would like to tell you the story of the Christmas candles as I heard it from Dana Greeley in the Unitarian Universalist church of my childhood.

We begin with a single light. This single candle stands for the light of the ages. The light of the ages is the truth and the light that is known to all peoples, in all times and places. Unlike the candle that symbolizes it, the true light of the ages never dies out. The true light of the ages is everywhere, and can be found by anyone, if we would but seek it out.

From the light of the ages, I’ll now light these next two big candles. These represent the prophets and sages. Every culture and every generation has at least one prophet and sage, men and women of exceptional wisdom and insight who bring the light of the ages to their generation. Jesus of Nazareth was one of those prophets and sages, and tonight we remember his wisdom and insight.

After we sing the first carol, we’ll light the flame in the chalice, which has become a symbol of Unitarian Universalism. That small flame will represent the prophets and sages in our religious tradition, many of whom have been inspired by Jesus — people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Hosea Ballou, and Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the woman who was the very first Unitarian minister in Palo Alto.

A little later on, I will light these candles here in front from the candles representing the prophets and sages (see if you notice when I do). These smaller candles represent the teachers, those who pass on the light of the ages to the rest of us. These teachers might be schoolteachers, but they are also mentors and friends and parents and grandparents, everyone who teaches us.

And finally, at the end of this Christmas Eve service, when we each receive a lit candle, we will symbolize the way the light of the ages comes to us, passed on to us from our teachers, who in turned received it from prophets and sages. And when we get done here tonight, it will be up to us to take our own light out into the world, to make our world a better place.

Garrison Keillor, righteous Christian, defender of Christmas

Dan is still down with a chest cold so Mr. Crankypants is ba-ack!

Mr. Crankypants finally decided to read the Garrison Keillor column in Salon that trashes “Unitarians.” It’s a mildly amusing little column; there are enough factual errors that one can’t help chuckling now and then.

For instance, Garry Keillor says that “You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit….” Except Emerson never preached at First Church. A simple Web search would have revealed that First Church in Cambridge is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The Unitarian Universalist church in Camnbridge, where Emerson delivered the famous “Divinity School Address,” is called “First Parish.” (A more obscure point is whether Emerson in fact ever actually preached at First Parish.) It’s always amusing when a well-known writer does not know how to do simple online fact-checking.

Garry Keillor also says: “Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice…, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite ‘Silent Night.’  ” Except that Keillor’s favorite words are the rewrite, or more precisely a bad translation of the original German. The current Unitarian Universalist hymnal offers two translations of the German words written by Josef Mohr in 1816: there’s Keillor’s favorite (woefully inaccurate) translation; and on the facing page there’s pretty good translation along with the first verse in the original German. (If you want to be a real Christmas purist, be like Mr. Crankypants and sing the original German words, which are much prettier.) It’s always amusing when a well-known writer tries to be a pompous purist but winds up being an ignoramus.

And Garry Keillor says: “Christmas does not need any improvements. It is a common ordinary experience that resists brilliant innovation. Just… sing softly in dim light about the poor man gathering winter fu-u-el….” Except that the line about “gathering winter fuel” is from the song “Good King Wenceslas,” which is a song about St. Stephen’s feast day, which is December 26. Sure, most people sing it at Christmas time. But a Christmas purist like Keillor, who despises “all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys,” should know better. It’s definitely amusing when a self-declared “Christian” writer tries to be a Christmas purist, but lacks the requisite liturgical and theological knowledge.

The sad thing is that with people like Garrison Keillor advocating for Christmas, it’s no wonder the New Atheists dismiss Christians. Come to think of it, those who consider themselves Christians may prefer not to be associated with a bitter, ignorant, intolerant ass like Keillor.

German words to “Silent Night / Stille Nacht” below the fold: Continue reading