It is with great relief that we can report that the Pope has not cancelled Christmas. Pope Benedict XVI rather innocently caused a stir last week when he released a new book about the life of Jesus Christ in which he says animals were not present at the birth of Jesus, contrary to the popular imagery found in nativity scenes. He has been accused of being Grinchy, but the more accurate interpretation is that the head of the Roman Catholic Church is reminding the world about the true origins and meaning of the season.
The Pope reports in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives that there is no mention in the gospels of manger-side oxen and donkeys, and that their inclusion in traditional nativity scenes is probably the result of a reference in the Hebrew Bible. How this resulted in headlines such as “Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions” is a mystery sacred to the traditions of the press, but it most likely stems from the fact that “Party-pooper Pope says Pax Christi not necessarily opposed to Pax Augusti,” taken from another section of the book, would not have generated as much reader interest.
The Pope also writes that angels do not don toques and woollen scarves and deliver their Christmas messages in the form of carols (he says they speak, not sing), and that – real shocker – it is unlikely that Jesus’s birth was, in fact, on Dec. 25, 0000 (he allows for a variance of several years). He doesn't mention that the nativity did not involve bacon, marshmallows and anthropomorphized cats, as that probably would have been overkill.
For the record, the Vatican has responded to the allegations that “Pope bans Christmas” with a blog posting headlined “The Pope has not banned Christmas,” which should settle the issue.
But seriously, it is entirely fitting that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church would remind a cynical world that, in the church’s doctrine, Jesus Christ was a real man, and that his birth and its message are central to Christianity. The Pope’s book, taken in the right spirit, is an antidote to the rampant materialism that threatens to overtake the season every year. That is something that’s always welcome.