For this year’s Christmas Card, I was planning to provide something in the way of light entertainment – as in the Abecedary series. But there’s no knowing whence inspiration will strike. A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article that cast the whole stable-nativity idea as nothing more than a popular fallacy. To sum it up as briefly as possible, the writer pointed out that the Greek word kataluma, often translated as ‘inn’, was normally used to denote the spare upper room in a house. The room usually reserved for guests. So “no room at the kataluma” meant simply the guest room was full (presumably because crammed with other travelling relatives). In that middle Eastern culture, it would be unthinkable that Joseph would visit his home town and not call on the hospitality of relatives, however distant. So, with the spare room already occupied, they would most likely have stayed in the only other room in the house, with the rest of the family – where, set into the floor at one end, there would be a manger filled with hay for the animals kept below on the ground floor. Here’s the complete article, including enlightening house diagram.
I guess we were all used to the idea that no one really knew quite what sort of place Jesus was actually born in. But seeing a clear case for something very different from the Christmas card images was quite a jolt. Like finding out the truth about Father Christmas. (I never bought that in the first place myself, but can imagine the potential trauma.)
So, it seems, a slip in translation together with ignorance of architectural and cultural practices of first-century Palestine has generated a ramified mythology of an al fresco birth, a beastly reception and a grumpy innkeeper. But it’s not just the cards and the nativity plays that now seem rather wide of the mark. It’s the whole idea of Jesus being rejected from the outset and born outside the fold. “The true meaning of Christmas” is not quite the meaning we’d assumed. Some radical adjustment is needed.
This revelation felt especially pointed at this moment in time, when so much of what we took for granted has been eroded and even our Christmas traditions are threatened from all sides. It seemed strangely connected to our present moment – and full of poetic possibility. And perhaps, once we have got beyond the disappointment, there is something more, something deeper to discover.
So here is the drawing from front of the card, the poem from the inside, and a reading from me. (Just click to listen.)