Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?
What Matters (and What Doesn't) in the Festive Season

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 12/19/2010 by Mark Tubbs.

Recommended. An Anglican bishop braves the ire of the anything-goes-at-Christmastime crowd, insisting on the centrality of the Christ-event.

The newly-minted Anglican diocesan bishop of Bradford is a Liverpudlian of varied interests. Formerly the suffragan bishop of Croydon, the Right Revd Nick Baines made headlines among CofE circles for his treatment of traditional carols in his newest book, Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? What Matters (and What Doesn't) in the Festive Season.

Those who dismissively labeled him a curmudgeon failed to read any further than the book's title, I'm convinced. Anyone who actually cracks the cover will discover a churchman who is thoroughly preoccupied with the true meaning of Christmas, and only incidentally concerned about the silly cultural trappings surrounding it.

There's no secret as to what is most important to Baines. To echo the subtitle of the book, what "really matters" to him in the festive season is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He bemoans that the Christ festival "has gradually become a festival without content, a celebration without a reason and a form of escapism without the possibility of escape from the consequences of how we celebrate it." In an effort to rehabilitate the season, Baines delves into many biblical scenes, imagining how the human participants in the birth of Christ would have experienced the events, especially Mary and the shepherds. Here, then, is the true biblical content of the Christmas narrative.

In a chapter that borrows its title from John Lennon (a musical hero of Baines – and he has many, not to mention some musical villains mentioned by name), Baines takes up the theme of war and peace. He recounts the possibly-apocryphal story about the ad hoc Christmas Day truce between British and German forces during World War I. Whether it is true or not isn't so much the point; the larger point is that "it had something to do with what Christmas is and what Christmas promises." But Baines is under no illusions: "it is not enough simply to think that if everyone was nicer to each other, peace would be the outcome." True peace comes by virtue of the Prince of Peace. (Those readers of mine who might have wondered whether anything theologically orthodox can come from the pen of a CofE bishop may now breathe a sigh of relief.)

The one drawback for North American readers may be the book's Britishness in areas of culture. I didn't recognize all the Christmas songs mentioned even though my own parents are English. Although he hails from the land that made mincemeat famous, Baines doesn't mince words. However, he isn't all negative but gives equal positive print to carols whose lyrics he finds true to the biblical truth of the incarnation event. He rightly finds fault with the tearless baby Jesus of "Away in a Manger" and criticizes portions of "Once in Royal David's City" for a not-so-hidden agenda owing to Victorian behavior control. To his credit, Baines militates against the trappings of the West's culturally secular Christmas without coming across as a mere crank. He does not peddle mere tradition for tradition's sake, but argues that we must interpret the incarnation as God intended and not according to how the culture has altered it. The Church does not escape criticism, and nor should it: we must do a better job at creating "the space and the places where people can find themselves exposed to the enormous mystery that is the God who comes among us as one of us."

So, what really matters in the festive season at the end of Christmas Day? Hear Baines' own words:

My hope is really quite simple: that in reading this book, you might be able to hear the Christmas story through refreshed ears, consider its meaning anew and find encouragement that a Christian understanding of God's commitment to his world and his people is powerful – and includes you. All you need to bring to it is curiosity. After all, this is a story about God being down to earth. The least we can do is join him down here and engage our imagination.