Christmas as metaphor

The human mind works like this. Very basically, we see something and compare it against what we know and then we automatically know how to think and act. For example, we see an angry face and automatically prepare to ‘fight or flee’ — Scientists have shown that even infants can recognise what a face is, and whether it’s angry.

This demonstrates that our mind and language are fundamentally metaphorical. We see and describe the world by saying, “Oh that is just like something I have seen before. That is an angry face.” Seeing the world like this, in terms of metaphors, works at the deepest level of our mind, the unconscious and automatic level. We don’t reason very often and question whether that object we see really is an angry face which our mind has categorised. As George Lakoff says, “. . .the hidden hand of the unconscious mind uses metaphor to define our unconscious metaphysics . . .” [In Philosophy in the Flesh] Not only do we see faces and other objects automatically; our all-encompassing worldview is also formed by metaphor. This includes Christmas, whether we are Christians or athiests.

The Christmas season uses two conlicting metaphors

We like to say that our modern world has lost the true meaning of Christmas. Santa Claus and his bag full of gifts (comfortably supporting the need to shop to keep our economy growing and healthy) has taken over as the predominant metaphor from the Christ child laying in the manger. I doubt that this only happened recently. In fact, since the earliest days of the church, there was a common metaphor for the world, and that was whatever political/economic idea dominated in a particular age. The Roman metaphor was the great city of Rome and its grandeur. The Holy Roman Empire replaced that with the great church and its grandeur. Thus,  the modern metaphor of the great society creating global economic wellbeing follows a long line of similar metaphors. The infant God in a manger metaphor has always struggled against the dominant metaphor of the times.

The thing about metaphors is that you need to ‘unpack’ them to understand their deeper significance. What do the metaphor of Santa Claus and the metaphor of the infant God mean?

Santa Claus is a happy old man giving gifts to children who have been good. The metaphor means that, if we are good, the gifts will come to us. In our economic system, if we are well-off, we are usually seen as good. We are encouraged to give gifts to the less well-off at Christmas. This is not usually associated with Santa Claus, however, but with Saint Nicholas, who gave gifts to all children, rich and poor alike, without regard to whether they were good or bad.

The infant God in the manger metaphor is more difficult for humankind to unravel. In fact, even Jesus’ mother probably didn’t understand the significance of this puzzling act of God. The angels had to explain it: “I bring you news of great joy that will be for all people.” The infant God is a great gift that brings joy and peace to all mankind. Exactly what this gift is remains subtle and largely hidden. God doesn’t enter the world like a hero or Santa Claus. God’s gift of Himself at Christmas, and His choice to do that in Bethlehem in a manger, keeps on giving because we can’t unravel the mystery of the infant God metaphor! The infant God metaphor is always in conflict with the dominant economic/political metaphor.

Christmas is a time for going back to the 1st grade in school

Can you remember when you were in the first grade? Probably not. What I remember is that I didn’t understand anything — about reading, nunbers, how to get along with the Sisters, or how to be a “success.” I was basically a sponge, waiting to soak up the water of education. [Another metaphor] If I had arrived at the first grade already full of ‘stuff’ I wouldn’t have been ready to learn. That’s what usually  happens at Christmas. We already know what the Bethlehem story means.

Still, when we see the infant Jesus, we experience some conflict with the dominant symbols of our commercialised world. This is a signal that there is some learning at hand. Our task is to make room “in the inn” (our already filled sponge) for the “news of great joy.” If we have been through thirty or forty Christmases (or many more in my case), making room is difficult.  Over the years, we have filled our sponge with our own explanations about the infant God in the manger. For me to learn what this gift means, I can only try to stop thinking and return to my innocent state of readiness, like the 1st grade. “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10] The mystery of the infant God in a manger is there, waiting for us to be ready to receive the good news of news of great joy. Try emptying your mind of all your accustomed stories about Jesus and Bethlehem and wait for God to come.

5 Replies to “Christmas as metaphor”

  1. I loved this especially the piece about we think that the rich get the goodies because they are good. This is spiritual capitalism and causes untold harm. The spread of this metaphor, not just through Santa Claus and Christian metaphor but also through New Age dogma – causes untold harm – and leads to a blame the victim mentality. (e.g. the claim that the poor are poor because they are bad, lazy. stupid or have bad karma). Yuk. The Christ metaphor is one of compassion and understanding. Christ was born in a manger – not because he was bad – but because his parents were poor. From great poverty wonderful things can spring. Margot Cairnes

  2. Interesting Jim but I must disagree with you on two fronts. Firstly Mary knowingly chose to surrender to the will of God and bring forth His child and we believe fully understood this unparalleled act of His love for humanity.

    Second to reduce this act of supreme love to a metaphor does not assign the act it’s due! This is the Word made flesh… Not a mere metaphor! And the message… God so loved the world!

    Father Christmas is and has always been entirely consistent with the message of God’s gift of love, the gifts of the Kings etc. Santa Claus (a Coke advertising campaign) was where the train left the rails!

    1. Let me answer your two points by first saying I didn’t intend to reduce the reality of Christmas to a metaphor. In fact, what I was trying to point out is our human tendency to only see the events of Jesus’ birth as a familiar story not as the supreme yet mysterious transformational event in human history. We do tend to automatically get trapped in metaphors and stories that may reduce reality to a shadow of what it actually is.

      Mary knew her son was unique but, and the Bible states this, could only ponder all this things in her heart. What happened was mysterious to her too. She is an excellent model as always for us, who also must reflect on this mystery to be affected by it.

      I bow to your historical understanding of Christmas. Perhaps our modern consumer understanding of Santa Claus has lost the meaning that past societies retained about the holiday. This doesn’t change my basic point about the conflict between the secular and religious understanding and our need to find a fresh way to understand the mystery — using tradition to help us.

    1. I love this discussion, Jim. And I see your point(s) even though I absolutely agree with Michael. Yes, Mary did ponder all these things in her heart. She had an enormous amount of faith as did Joseph. God’s gift to us of Jesus was indeed a miracle and one we still marvel at today.

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