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Column Beurskens: Christmas at Greccio

The interior design of a house is a form of behavior which reveals secrets. How people decorate their house at Christmas time tells a lot about them.
I had two patients once, whose problems resembled each other and with whom I had a feeling I didn’t get anywhere. My ideas led nowhere. Joost had pains all over his body. The word fibromyalgia had to my horror already fallen. Ann felt no joy in anything she did and experienced a permanent fatigue. With both them it felt as if you pulled at a dead horse.

I visit Ann around Christmas and I see she has a small plastic Christmas tree. The thing looks like it will disappear to the attic around New Year with the balls still hanging on it, together with the fragile little table from the fifties which has three legs. Ann apparently notices my look and says … one has to do something … which only makes it worse.

To my surprise Joost rearranged his living-room to allow for several Christmas trees with the crib in their midst. Everything is lit beautifully. The trees are planted in buckets full of earth which is carried in by wheelbarrow. Members of the household who watch all this every year with unbelief are encouraged to disappear and go shopping.

Is this only about romanticism or creativity? Something which the one has and the other hasn’t? And does it influence health? At the beginning of the twentieth century the sociologist Weber made his now famous remark about the ‘entzauberte Welt’, the world without magic. By which he means the world we live in now. Behind this remark two propositions are concealed. Firstly, we certainly don’t live anymore in a romantic world, which believes in fairy tales. But secondly, Weber also wants to express that the magic world stands further from the truth than the rational world which replaced it. And this process of change he viewed as progress.

Our criticism on Weber can also be of two kinds. On the one hand it is a pity that the world isn’t romantic and magical anymore. We loose something with it. On the other hand, is the new world not further removed from the truth instead of coming closer to it? Indeed there isn’t anything of a fairy tale in the CNN-internet-world citizen. This creature indeed doesn’t possess anything lovable, that’s for sure, but isn’t it also estranged and unreal? Ann not only lacks fantasy. She also lacks something more essential, something which is necessary for life. As I say to my small nephews and nieces, whom they try to tell that Saint Nicolas doesn’t exist -the one who thrown presents down the chimney on the sixth of december; in the Netherlands-, this to the danger of not being considered in my right mind, even by them: Saint Nicolas exists. Don’t be fooled. I believe in him again. The magic world is not the truth, but it is closer to it than the rational world.
The birth of Jesus is the clarion blast to the bone fields of the prophet Ezechiel, true, he is the via salutis, the janua caelestis, the road to salvation, the gate to heaven. Is not also required though some loving human imagination, however poor and unpretentious it might be? Like the woman in Heinrich Böll who celebrated Christmas all year long and the cribs at every Italian train station during the time of Christmas. The sign ‘presepio’ points to the most artistic and moving creations. Some have been made with such love that you can almost see that it really happened.

Saint Francis of Assisi also understood that. In 1223 he celebrated in the forest of Greccio probably the most famous Christmas in history. He had asked the pope permission to assemble a live Christmas group, complete with ox and donkey. A feeding trough went for the altar. The people came from afar carrying lights. The mountain trails were that Christmas night like streams of light, as contemporaries write. Saint Francis read the gospel and he held a homily which brought the people into ecstasy. Saint Bonaventure writes that Jesus himself was present in the manger. Man in the Middle Ages didn’t have a problem with that. Poetry and beauty were for him a gate to heaven. Maybe the Middle Ages weren’t as dark as we often like to think. And Joost is better off than Ann.