The Modern Christmas – the history of Christmas part four

The history of Christmas in four podcasts: here’s the fourth, with writers Steve Legg and Nicky Gumbel.

Written, presented and produced by me, Wayne Clarke and originally broadcast on BBC Local Radio.

The Victorian Christmas – the history of Christmas part three

The history of Christmas in four podcasts: here’s the second, with historian Christian Lalumia.

Written, presented and produced by me, Wayne Clarke and originally broadcast on BBC Local Radio.

The Tudor Christmas – the history of Christmas part two

The history of Christmas in four podcasts: here’s the second, with historian Alison Plowden.

Written, presented and produced by me, Wayne Clarke and originally broadcast on BBC Local Radio.

The Medieval Christmas – the history of Christmas part one

The history of Christmas in four podcasts: here’s the first, with historian Sophie Jackson.

Written, presented and produced by me, Wayne Clarke and originally broadcast on BBC Local Radio.

Goodbye to 2014

So that was the year that was 2014.

What made it distinctive for me was the amount of travelling I’ve done. This year I’ve travelled more miles and visited more countries and spent longer outside the UK than any other year.

I’ve been to Malta, Germany, Netherlands and Moldova, with brief stops in Ukraine and Romania. The trip to Moldova was extraordinary. I spent time there with friends from the Tidings of Salvation Church in Chisinau and lived at their summer camp. They have a lot less than us in material resources, but so much more in determination and faith.

I had a just one day in the Netherlands including a stop in Demeter but it still rates as my favourite place to be. Malta was a special holiday, two weeks in the sun celebrating our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

Next year: my hopes are mainly with my family. I’m hoping the shop my wife manages can thrive. I’m praying for my son as he graduates, and then gets married in July – that will be the highlight of the year. I’m praying just as hard for my daughter who will also be graduating and looking for work.

Our church will be studying Mark’s gospel through the year and I’m about to spend a few weeks immersing myself in Mark. I’m looking forward to the challenge and preparing to have the Bible speak to me in new ways.
I’m hoping for a few things for myself in 2015: Develop my musical skills; write more, including this blog; lose weight (yeah, I know).

Oh, and this blog needs a name. All the good blogs have a name. Any ideas?

Thanks for following and have a great 2015.

Read the Bible: Lee Mack on Desert Island Discs

Here’s Lee Mack on BBC Radio 4’s Desert island Discs with Kirsty Young.

 

 

 

Welcome to the new Archbishop

The appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury marks the ascendency of bold, socially engaged evangelical faith within the Church of England. In some ways Justin Welby has the background that has marked many primates of the Church before him. He studied at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge and is related to a former prime minister. But Justin Welby is a different kind of educated gentleman from those of a previous generation. His faith is rooted in Christ who came to serve, not to rule, and while his background has opened doors, his ambitions have been for the growth of God’s kingdom, not for personal aggrandisement.

Welby’s previous experience in the oil business and in the world of high finance has marked him out as the man for the job, but it is his worldly-wise gospel commitment that continues to encourage many in the Christian community. What has been mentioned less often is Welby’s international role as a peacemaker – particularly in central Nigeria where he was a major factor in the successful peace negotiations between fighting factions. And don’t forget that the Church of Nigeria is now second only to the Church of England in the size of its membership of the worldwide Anglican Communion of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head.

Justin Welby’s appointment also marks the rise and rise of the influence of the Alpha Course. When he worked in London, Welby was a member of Holy Trinity Brompton, and is still close friends with Nicky Gumbel, whose work leading and promoting the Alpha Course has made such a mark on British Christianity. The faith that arises from Alpha is unashamedly evangelical, founded on a belief in the Bible. It is also charismatic, depending on the Holy Spirit’s works and gifts. It is at the same time socially engaged, taking seriously the material needs of the world and the place of Christian faith in the political and economic structures of society.

Welby lives by what he calls a “confidence in the gospel”. The gospel he bears is the gospel of personal salvation and the gospel of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit and the gospel that can speak into the problems of the whole of society.

Welby prefers words to music, but the music he does enjoy demonstrates the breadth of his experience and spirituality, from Handel to Wesley to Matt Redman and Stuart Townend.

Another reason that Justin Welby is the right man for the job is his ecumenical experience. His strong working relationship with Roman Catholics in Europe and in Liverpool will encourage those who want to see the Church of England retain its ties with Rome even as it sets itself apart with the appointment of women as bishops.

On a personal level, Welby has a knack of relating to everyone at their own level, a skill he has found very useful in Durham and one he will need to draw upon as Archbishop. He has recently become a grandfather and is “acquainted with grief”, as the first of his six children was killed in car crash in 1983.

Twelve months ago, when he became Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby said that his first priority in the new role was “to listen”, and then to encourage the work of the church in its worship of God and in its growth in numbers. As Archbishop of Canterbury he will need to raise his sights again to a wider role in the nation, but it is likely that he will be more interested in leading the church to growth and working behind the scenes, and will feature less in the media that his predecessor has done.

Welby’s appointment will not please everyone in the Church. He represents a move to an open evangelical position that some at the liberal end of the Church will not be delighted about. Neither will he please the most conservative of evangelicals. But he stands in a strong place to represent mainline evangelical opinion in the Church and may just be the man to hold the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion together.

Christians of all denominations and none should now get on their knees and pray for Justin Welby – pray that the job won’t squeeze him into its own mould, and that he will have the strength to be the Lord’s man for this calling and for such a time as this.

Christmas Peace

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

One remarkable tale of Christmas is the day peace broke out in 1914. By Christmas of that year fighting on the Western Front in World War One had claimed one million casualties. Those still alive were living in rat-infested trenches.

On Christmas Eve the sky was clear and the night was crisp and fresh. Lights appeared from the German trenches and the allied soldiers thought an attack was imminent. But the Germans raised their voices not their weapons and started singing. The carol Stille Nacht reached the Allied trenches, which they recognised as Silent Night. The lights were small Christmas trees the German soldiers had set up.

Without authorisation soldiers started climbing out of the trenches and wandering into no-man’s land. Enemies ate and drank together. Some British infantrymen ate their Christmas dinner in German trenches. Others joined forces with the enemy to bury their dead. A game of football started, though it’s not recorded who won.

Unfortunately the soldiers’ humanity alarmed their leaders and both sides prevented a repeat of the Christmas truce in the years that followed. But the idea that the peace and goodwill of Christmas could even bring a pause to a war is a remarkable testimony to the power of this season.

The Man who stole Christmas

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

The man who stole Christmas was Oliver Cromwell. Well to be honest it had to more to do with the Puritans who supported Cromwell. In the 1640’s most people loved Christmas as much as we do today. But the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians had two problems with it. One was that they thought a religious festival was being hijacked by people who just wanted to get drunk. But they were also suspicious of any religious festivals which seemed to them to be part of the Catholic teaching they rejected.

In 1644 Parliament passed a law that Christmas was to be a fast and a penance rather than a celebration. For twelve years the law was rigorously enforced. Shopkeepers were arrested for closing on Christmas Day. Evergreen decorations were prohibited. Parliament sat as usual on Christmas Day. Even churches were not allowed to open.

What happened in practice was that people still celebrated Christmas at home and found reasons not to be at work. What lost out was the religious observance of Christmas, while the secular Christmas survived.

Nowadays most Christians are happy to be part of the secular celebration of Christmas and most churches make room for a Christmas tree. Some will even include Father Christmas as part of their services. Most Christians are happy to combine the birthday of Jesus with the old midwinter festival. It is true that more people go to church at Christmas time than any other time of the year, which shows that British people still want something of the Christian festival as well as the secular one that goes alongside it. Even many Jews and Muslims in Britain celebrate Christmas, exchange presents and have the traditional trimmings of the day. British Christmas these days is not wholly religious or secular it’s a mixture of the two, as it has been ever since it began.

Father Christmas

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

Now here’s a long and complicated story and one which I will tell carefully.

St Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey as long ago as 300 AD. By all accounts he was a generous man. One story told about him is that there was in his town a family with three daughters, but not enough money to pay the dowry necessary to see the daughters married. Nicholas went to the family’s house at night-time and threw through the window, or in some versions down the chimney a bag of gold to provide the first daughter with her dowry. A second night he threw in another bag of gold, and then a third, but by this time the father was so curious he stayed up to see who was giving the gifts. He discovered it was Nicholas and told everyone about the generosity of the man.

The legend of Nicholas lived on after his death and he became the patron saint of Russia, of sailors and of merchants. In some countries St Nicholas Day, December 6th, rather than Christmas Day, is the day children receive their presents.

In the Middle Ages Nicholas was everyone’s favourite saint, and all over Europe there are pictures of him, tall with a robe and long beard, and holding three golden balls in memory of his act of generosity, the same three balls that became the symbol of pawnbrokers. He was particularly popular in Holland where he is Sinter Klaas – St Nicholas in Dutch.

St Nicholas then went to America with the Dutch immigrants who settled around the city of New Amsterdam, or New York as it is known these days. In the 1800’s New Yorkers changed the Dutch Sinter Klass with his long robe and big beard into Santa Claus.

In 1823 a New York newspaper printed the poem “Twas the night before Christmas”.  The poem was written by Clement Moore to entertain his children and never expected it to be published. It was this poem that introduced the world to Saint Nick’s reindeers but still described the man himself as a short and jolly elf. The way we think he looks these days depends on a series of pictures by the American artist Thomas Nast and, strangely a series of adverts for Coca Cola in the 1930’s which dressed Santa in a  red coat to match the label on the Coke bottle.

And then there’s a character who’d been known in Britain for hundreds of years called Father Christmas. Back then Father Christmas was nothing like Santa. Britain had no tradition of St Nicholas but we did have a character who appeared in the traditional street theatre of the mummers. This character could be impish or he could be lean and gaunt and he was variously called Old Christmas, Sir Christmas or Father Christmas. He was a but like Old Father Time, the one who ushered in Christmas. If you know the way Father Christmas appears in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to bring Christmas into a waiting world you’ll get the idea.

So Father Christmas as we know him now is a mixture of the European St Nicholas, the American Santa Claus and the British Old Father Christmas. By the way, one difference to look out for between Santa Claus and Father Christmas is that the American version is normally drawn with a red suit and a hat while the British way of picturing him is with a long red cloak with a hood. Watch out for that.