With Thanksgiving barely behind us, Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas, has arrived along with its many traditions. My family cuts down a tree, its evergreen scent filling our living room. We sing carols — loud — throughout the house, unwrap the delicate manger scene and bake gingerbread cookies. And each year, my children dress up in white robes and tinsel halos, “perfect” angels for the pageant at their grandparents’ church.
These traditions engage our senses with the sounds, sights, tastes and smells of Christmas. For all our merriment, it would be easy to think that Christmas has always had these customs.
But as Christian holidays go, Christmas is a relatively new one. It emerged late, after the feast of Easter was well-established. Since no one knew the actual date of Christ’s birth, the feast of the Nativity was celebrated in December, coinciding with the winter solstice and the Roman agricultural festival of Saturnalia.
During the Middle Ages, church was an important part of Christmas, but so was raucous revelry, with riotous crowds in a carnival atmosphere and the poor threatening the rich if they were not offered food and drink. These traditions led the Puritans who settled New England to reject the observance of Christmas. In fact, the holiday was illegal in Boston from 1659 to 1681.
But one 13th-century Christian had a different vision for observing Christmas. Francis of Assisi was the well-dressed but frivolous son of a wealthy Italian cloth merchant. He was converted from his dissolute ways by a vision of Christ speaking to him from a crucifix, telling him to rebuild his church. He began giving away his father’s cloth to the poor, and when his dad brought him before the bishop on a charge of theft, Francis threw off his fancy clothes, as well as his ties to his father. Embracing a life of radical poverty, Francis went about the Italian countryside preaching to anyone who would listen. His followers begged for their daily food and slept on the forest floor at night.
Francis was drawn to meditate on the humble, self-emptying love of Christ, who left the glories of heaven to become the weakest of human beings. One Christmas in Grecchio, Francis arranged for a manger to be filled with hay and an ox and donkey to be led in: “For I would make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships.”
He gathered the local men and women around the manger and preached a sermon about a poor king born in Bethlehem. One Francis biographer tells us that, “he would name Christ Jesus, aglow with exceeding love, he would call Him the Child of Bethlehem, and, uttering the word ‘Bethlehem’ in the manner of a sheep bleating, he filled his mouth with the sound ... he would lick his lips, relishing with happy palate, and swallowing the sweetness of that word.”
Some in the crowd even saw Francis lift from the manger a sleeping, lifeless infant who awoke in the saint’s arms. His biographer concludes, “for the child Jesus had been given over to forgetfulness in the hearts of many in whom, by the working of His Grace, He was raised up again through His servant Francis.”
So each time we set up a manger scene on our mantel or watch children dressed up as angels and shepherds in a pageant, we follow St. Francis in making Christmas new.
But perhaps we should also use real hay and throw in some donkey dung. Because St. Francis knew the real smells of Christmas, and they were not cinnamon and nutmeg.
In actuality, Christmas smells of weary, unwashed travelers and a crowded stable, of childbirth and filthy shepherds. The sounds of Christmas are bleating sheep being raised for slaughter, of clanging coins collected by occupying soldiers, the groans of a woman in labor and the cries of a newborn. The tastes of Christmas are rough peasant bread, sheep’s milk and, more often, hunger.
St. Francis knew Christmas was a squalid affair, despite efforts in his day — and ours — to sanitize it. It was about heaven breaking into a broken world, about God becoming a baby who spit up, wrapped in swaddling cloths that were often poopy. Christ wasn’t afraid to be smelly. And that reality is what we are waiting and preparing for, long after the pageants are over, the cookies have been eaten and the only reminders of the Christmas tree are needles in the rug.
Jennifer Hevelone-Harper is a professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham. She and her family live in Ipswich.