“Have you read a good Buddhist novel lately?” That question was put to a friend of mine years ago by a Princeton University PhD candidate. The focus of her studies was early, modern Japanese literature (including Buddhist writing), and frankly, it was pretty boring stuff. She was discovering Buddhism lacks one element that makes any story compelling and worth listening to over and over. The irony is that this same element is missing from the modern retelling of Christmas; which makes it an all-too-familiar tale most people turn off after December 25th. What’s missing?
The answer can be found right there in your nativity set. Or, better yet, pull the curtains back on the last book of the Bible.
Revelation 12 reveals what the angels saw at Christmas. The story begins with a dragon (i.e., Satan) leading a ferocious struggle in heaven. This war took place before creation (Isaiah 14 & Ezekiel 28) and brought about the fall of the angelic realm – including the “deceiver” who was thrown down to earth. A woman – Mary – is about to give birth. Satan is crouching before her, ready to devour Mary’s child the moment he is born. At the last second, he is snatched away. Mary, baby Jesus and Joseph flee into Egypt (Matthew 2) while full-blown cosmic war commences. Satan is last seen scanning the horizon – looking to devour followers of the Christ child.
Satan was once included in the Christmas story. Prior to the 19th century, the Christmas chronicle was similar to other ancient epics – lots of bad guys and often raucous or vulgar behavior. That’s because the gospel was understood as a four-chapter story characterized by four types of conversations: (1) how things ought to be, (2) what is – i.e., what things are like in the real world, (3) what we can do to make things better, and (4) what things will be like some day. The second chapter – “the way it is” – requires us to recognize evil and never completely cover our eyes. As William James put it: “The world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.”1 There are bad guys, and we need to know about them.
Satan largely disappeared when 19th century Victorian England sanitized stories and moved them from the parlor to the children’s rooms. The Victorians, many of them people of faith, romanticized the idea of “childhood” as something quite separate and distinct from adult life, meaning they “cleaned up” the ancient stories for kids by removing or emasculating villains. Sleeping Beauty is one example. Originally, the princess is wakened not by a chaste kiss, but by the twins she gives birth to after the prince has come, fornicated with her sleeping body, and left again. In older versions of Snow White, a passing prince claims the girl’s dead body and locks himself away with it. His mother, complaining of the dead girl’s smell, is greatly relieved when the maiden returns to life. Cinderella doesn’t sit weeping in the cinders while talking bluebirds flutter around her; she is a clever, angry, feisty girl. The Christmas story is another example. It was cleaned up from a blood-and-guts cosmic drama to a sweet, snow white tale about a baby, mother and husband, and a stable.
J.R.R. Tolkien warned that this “sprucing up” would ruin the ancient stories.2 And, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Snow White, Walt Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, expanded the role of the prince, making the square-jawed fellow pivotal to the plot while “shrinking” the dwarfs into comically adorable (and thoroughly sexless) creatures (only the queen retained some of her old power). Disney’s rendition is peculiarly American, a Horatio Alger-type rags-to-riches story. When critics protested the broad changes, Walt Disney responded, “It’s just that people now don’t want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they’ll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway.”
Snow White is a “pretty” story today that has little to do with the real world. There are no real antagonists, just abstractions about evil. Buddhist stories are similar; they generally fail to present an absolute distinction between good and evil. Both leave too little grist for a compelling story. Which brings us to the modern-day Christmas story. By forgetting that Satan was there at the birth, the Christmas story has become more like Snow White or a Buddhist fable. We need to keep Satan in Christmas. He’s the missing piece in your nativity set.
When the 16th century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China, he brought along religious art and icons to help illustrate the gospel to a people who had never heard the good news. The Chinese embraced pictures of the Virgin Mary cuddling the newborn baby, but were repulsed and horrified by scenes of the crucifixion. They preferred the cherubic child to the idea of bloodshed, antagonists, and evil. Pretty… boring. How about adding a lurking, shrouded figurine to your nativity display? That might make the Christmas drama stay with us longer than Bing Crosby’s nice, sweet rendition – which radio stations abruptly quit playing at 12:01am every December 26th.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,Let your heart be light.From now on, your troubles will be out of sight.Have yourself a merry little ChristmasMake the Yuletide gay.From now on, our troubles will be miles away.
1 William James (1842-1910) was a philosopher and psychologist.
2 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Andrew Lang Lecture (1938).