I have some Christmas music playing at home today, and just listened to O Little Town Of Bethlehem, one of my favorite carols. For the longest time, I imagined that the real-life Bethlehem was more or less a mountain village in Bavaria — an illusion that continued far into adulthood, even though I consciously knew better. Why is this? Because for us Americans, at least, all our Christmas imagery is German and English. When I was a very small boy, my grandmother had a little Bavarian Christmas village mounted atop a Styrofoam platform the size of a small hatbox. It was covered with felt. You turned a key on the side, and a music box inside the platform played Silent Night. Thinking back, the little village must have been cheap as all get-out, but boy, was it ever magical in my eyes. I doubt anybody ever told me that village was Bethlehem; I just assumed it. I knew from my Sunday school lessons that Bethlehem was in the Holy Land, and that the Holy Land was more of a desert climate. Still, I lived with that cognitive dissonance. Bethlehem was Bavarian, Tyrolean, or otherwise Alpine, and that was that.
So deep went that fantasy that when, as a grown man, I visited the actual Bethlehem, I still registered at some level shock and dismay that it was a town of Palestine. I looked out over the hills below the town, into the same fields where the shepherds tending their flocks by night saw the angel, and was … well, not disappointed, exactly, but having an emotional reaction that was a mixture of omigod, those are THE FIELDS! and a letdown that those hills aren’t the kind of hills that would be alive with the sound of music. You know?
This is funny as a matter of kid logic, but the more serious issue is how our American idea of Christianity is defined so strongly by our European heritage. I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong about this, and certainly nothing surprising. It’s just startling to confront the fact that Christianity began as a Middle Eastern religion, and was first Eastern before it became Western in the way we understand the concept. I’ve mentioned before about how remarkable it was to me to worship with Maronite Christians (= Lebanese Catholics) in Brooklyn, and to consider the Arab Christian experience, which is older than the experience of my ancestors’ Christianity. We don’t often think of these things in our country. We should.
On a less serious level, experiencing my first Christmas season in Fort Lauderdale, in 1995, was jarring in a similar way. Even though I had been raised in south Louisiana, where Decembers are warmer than in much of the United States, nothing prepared me for Christmas shopping in shorts and flip-flops. It felt deeply, deeply wrong for Christmas to approach in such a warm climate. Of course it had never occurred to me that for Christians of the southern hemisphere, warmth and sunshine was normal for Christmas.