Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Faith Works 12-1

Faith Works 12-1-12

Jeff Gill


How It Really Was Back Then



Pope Benedict is putting out a new book about Jesus, and apparently there's some excitement, or controversy, or just some ginned up debate over what he says about Christmas.


It wasn't, we're told (I haven't seen the book yet), exactly like your standard Christmas pageant. Supposedly Il Papa claims there were, at the actual Nativity, no donkeys or cows, and the Magi, aka "wise men" not only weren't named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, they didn't show up at all until Jesus was two or so.


I'll bet he also says the spare room outside the main house wasn't a quaint, atmospheric stable, either.


My bemusement at this "news story" is because none of this is "news" in any sense I can recognize. If you've been to Bethlehem itself, you know that the site revered there is actually a rock-hewn cavern which guides tell you served the locals as stables for centuries. And who hasn't had the quiz question go by them at church asking "how many wise men came to visit the newborn king?" to which the answer is "we don't know, the Bible only says 'wise men' in plural." Could have been twenty, might have been two. Gifts numbering three are specified, so three to carry one each (gold, frankenstein, and myrrh, as I recall) just made sense.


Did they ride camels? What animals were in or around the stable or guest room for out-laws, or whatever a "kataluma" means in Greek to explain Luke 2.7?


If you want to know why the standard Nativity scene has the animals it does, don't look to Luke, but to Isaiah, specifically verses 1.3 & 60.6 (go ahead, look 'em up, I'll wait).


See why?


They fit the story, just as the appearance of the magi from Matthew 2 is blended in. We know the conventions of storytelling in a graphic novel, and when one character turns in a panel to the left to see one antagonist, then is approached by another person from the right with a different background, we don't overthink the art, we just understand that time passes. Medieval art, which has quite a bit in common with graphic novels, does this kind of compression or multiple appearances of the same figure in a single scene, and the viewer quickly "learned" how to read the plot development.


So it went with Nativity depictions; in the thirteenth century, when St. Francis in Assisi gathered up a bunch of local players and creatures to create the first "crèche" scene, he used the stock images of the day.


Now, in Italy, there's a tradition whose epicenter is in Naples, on the Via San Gregorio Armeno, a sight I'd love to see someday. Along this narrow, winding street that passes an ancient convent of the same name, there are dozens of makers of "il presepe," or depictions of the Nativity. Mary is whatever ethnicity or style you'd like to see somewhere along the shop windows of the artisans, and Joseph is anything from ancient & elderly to mature but vigorous with bulging muscles and a huge axe in hand (no doubt to cut the umbilical cord).


And the rest of the hundreds and thousands of scenes are the stock images of the Bethlehem birth, placed in familiar if wildly inappropriate contexts.


To be fair, most of them emphasize quaintness, age, and beauty, so you find the setting in Roman ruins and olive tree groves, or Gothic surroundings and painstakingly detailed oak trees, all with barn wood details and observant animals all around. But there are quite a few that put the story in modern terms, in current circumstances: in a garage and 50's diner elements, or on a recognizable street in today's Napoli, or Roma. There are crèche sets with clowns and acrobats, in a Formula One repair bay (the driver's seat serving as manger), or with popular animated series figures playing the various parts.


I think we all know that what we know about the events around the first Christmas aren't accurate. It wasn't how we imagine. What all these representations help us say, to affirm, is that it happened. It happened here, as in here in reality, and the message of why that actual birth is important is that it has an import for us, who we are, and where we live. That's what makes these updated, conflated, and augmented manger scenes so touching, and so meaningful, even if not historical.


But I draw the line at a Hobbit-themed Nativity. I think.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your favorite crèche set at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.



Monday, November 26, 2012

Knapsack 11-28

Notes from my Knapsack -- Granville Sentinel 11-28-12

Jeff Gill


A vision of sugarplums



There's not much left of an old fashioned Christmas, by some measures.


You don't find "presents on the tree" anymore. The 1943 hit "I'll Be Home for Christmas" had Bing Crosby singing about gifts you might imagine dangling from the branches of that tree back at your folks. It was long after those homesick GI's came back from overseas that the lyrics were bent into "presents under the tree."


Get a toothbrush, a new shirt, or an orange as your gift? You'd count yourself as ill-used and neglected indeed. Now we look for weighty consumer electronics and home entertainment systems which would snap the trunk, let alone branches.


Baking and canning are niche hobbies for many of the few (!) who still know how to do them. Some have found in sustainability an ethic that affirms the old, hot, time consuming ways to consume our produce and pickings, but for the rest of us, cloves and cinnamon sticks are more likely to be used in art products than in food preparation.


But even for those of us who enjoy cooking with odd elements and even pine for a chance to take up blacksmithing, there's those "sugarplums" in Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Going all the way back to 1823, if not older (but that's when it saw print), this story of an Old World bishop in his red robes, adapted a bit for northern European climes and perhaps influenced more than a bit by Odin All-father, includes a number of charming archaisms that even so are still comprehendible today. Nightcaps and kerchiefs in homes without central heating, chimneys down which a spritely figure can clamber, dusting their ermine with soot, and even a "bowl full of jelly" – all this we can easily imagine in 2012.


Sugarplums, though, not so much. Are they candied fruit? That's what I used to assume. It was in looking up some old seasonal recipes that I learned that, other than in shape, there's no plum in sugarplums. They're sugary candies built up, layer by layer, in a long slow process that starts with a seed, whether rock crystal candy or even a caraway seed. Then the hard rounded sweet is dipped and dunked and added to layer by layer, until you have a final size and shape to your satisfaction coming out of the simmering simple syrup, and then dusted for good measure with . . . sugar! They were very occasionally started with an almond at the center, but no dried fruit was ever used that I've found.


It's almost a jawbreaker, with a hint of Everlasting Gobstopper, since a child could get one and work on it for days, even weeks. (Let's not think about where that 1823 child stored it in between chaws.)


Having read up on sugarplums, I'm convinced that my best approach to an old-time Christmas is more along the lines of making snickerdoodles or a fruitcake. Fruitcakes can last a long time, too.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County, and he hopes you'll have yourself a merry little Christmas. Tell him your favorite old recipes of the season at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.