Daily Archives: December 14, 2011

Public service is really a special calling for all of us to do

From Business World 12 December 2011 By Mario Antonio Lopez

Don’t join government…’

“…If you do not truly love your country.” This was the first of three messages Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario left the almost 200 graduates of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) where he was commencement speaker on Sunday. The other two messages were: If you decide to do so, be prepared to be poor; and, Have a great sense of humor.

In between these three major messages the Secretary wove a story of his own experiences in serving government, first as an ambassador, and then as foreign affairs secretary, after years as a successful business executive.

The message had an impact on quite a number of Filipinos in the audience as I would find out later during the cocktails. In what Secretary del Rosario said they found the affirmation that many in government service already know — to serve is to find personal significance and fulfilment through social contribution.

“Don’t join government if you do not truly love your country.”

That message hit me deeply. I and many of the boys I grew up with in the early 1950s had dreamt of being soldiers, policemen, mailmen, firemen, school teachers as well as doctors, dentists and scientists. Our teachers often spoke of the nobility of public service and the need to help in the difficult task of nation building. They were, of course, the prime examples of the lives they spoke of. There was deep pleasure in living a life of significant contribution to society through helping provide more to those who had less.

Government service was a real alternative for us then, though many of our parents were preparing us to follow their footsteps and whatever openness they had for their sons pursuing government careers, low as it were, waned even more as government salaries were not growing apace of those in the private sector (there were very few NGOs then). Many were apprehensive about us being assigned to places far from them at a time when travel was slow and expensive. They dreaded thinking of the backward and wild places we may find ourselves in should the work require our staying there. To us, of course, that was in part the attraction. My gang and I saw ourselves as trailblazers and pioneers. Intrepid servants who dared to go where few had been.

I think that what underpinned our sentiments was that we saw ourselves as Filipinos, very much a part of this country, and we were proud to be Filipino. We knew the Philippines as OUR country, not just because we had been born as its citizens, but that it was ours because we would have the chance to help make it a good nation in a better country; and ultimately, a great country and a great nation.

I was fortunate to have had parents who shared these perceptions and these sentiments. My Tatay and Nanay saw to it that I would not be a stranger in my own land and encourage my travelling (with them and my other elders) to places far beyond Negros Occidental and Iloilo, our two home provinces. As a young boy I had seen Baguio and Tagaytay (and the places in between), gone to Cebu and Bohol, visited Cagayan de Oro, Davao and Zamboanga and even flew to Jolo and Tawi-Tawi. I saw the beauty of the islands and felt the warmth of its people. What was there not to like and even love?

But simultaneously I saw the poverty and witnessed the injustice, if only as an observer at some distance. In my boyhood I had the benefit of having attended both private and public schools. From both I had learned many complimenting lessons such as civic-spiritedness and Christianity. I had learned that while the pursuit of personal prosperity, popularity and power were good pursuits, they were not the only values worth pursuing, and, indeed, if pursued to the extremes, resulted in the commission of evils. I learned that people needed to balance their personal desires with consideration for the public good. I learned that loving oneself is important, but loving your fellow Filipinos, often at some sacrifice to you, would result in a far better Philippines for everyone, yourself included.

So it was that despite fairly attractive offers from the private sector in 1971, I opted to accept the offer of a senior managerial position in the newly created Commission on Population. My Tatay was not happy with my decision and wagered that I would not last three months. Sure the starting salary was not far from what my fellow AIM MBM graduates were receiving then, but he warned about the need to see that my salary grew every year, especially as I already had a wife and ought to be expecting children. I am fortunate in having married a soul mate. Cora and I believe in a life of service. She did not think poorly of government service and was willing to travel the journey hand-in-hand.

In the short span of five years (not three months as Tatay predicted) that I served in government it was my privilege and pleasure to have been part of a great endeavor of helping our people make a better life, directly and indirectly. We were able to supply medicines and medical equipment to formerly under-stocked, ill-equipped rural health units and other medical facilities both government and private, especially in places difficult to reach.

We provided schools equipment that they would not have had, had the population program been limited only to being a contraceptive distribution program. A blackboard is a blackboard, and chalk is chalk, regardless of the funding source and teachers could use it for population education and other subjects. The vehicles we procured and provided were used for any and all purposes demanded by the total service and not just the special programs we funded.

To me, however, what I thought was the best effect of our visiting all of the clinics strewn all over the country, we from “imperial Manila,” was the perception created in the minds of the public servants in those far-flung areas — that they had not been forgotten, that they were not alone in their quest for helping our people carve out a better life for themselves. To be sure, not all were dedicated to public service and a number were up to no good. Our visits, in such cases, acted as a damper to their corrupted practices.

We travelled as ordinary Filipinos travelled to better appreciate the rigors of transport in the country. Our bodies took the beating of 18-hour trips in buses with very cramped seats to the hinterlands of Kalinga-Apayao and Quezon province, and the sometimes sickening boat rides from Infanta to Polillo Island, or from one island of Batanes to another, just to deliver goods and to ask what else we could do for our doctors, nurses, sanitary inspectors, midwives, social workers and teachers.

We slept on mats on the floors of rural health units; we stayed in “travellers’ inns” where there were eight bunk beds to a room and where the water in the toilets and baths were color coded — reddish brown for flushing and murky white for bathing. Occasionally we were lucky. If there were free beds (and better toilets and baths), courtesy of the hospital director, we slept in provincial hospitals rooms.

We learned to eat the local daily fare, mindful not to catch some bug or other, but on a few occasions make the mistake of drinking contaminated water and winding up having to de-worm.

Why did we (in POPCOM from 1971 to the late ’70s there were many of), who had masters degrees that could land us better paying and more comfortable jobs in the private sector, choose to work in government?

The answer is simple: We loved (and still love) our country and its people and we wanted to do something to help it develop in a way that would make all Filipinos proud of it and want to stay here.

We saw for ourselves that the best service came from people who shared that love, and the worst from those who did not. We did our best to reinforce the former and tried our best to change the latter, not always successfully. But we tried.

In the process of going through this journey we experienced Secretary del Rosario’s second message: Be prepared to live modestly: very, very modestly. In two years’ time I saw my classmates’ income soar to four, even six times my own. Many had moved into their first homes. I was still living in my small apartment. They had cars while I had my office Vietnam War surplus office provided pick-up. Most of us ended our government service with nothing much in terms of material wealth to show. I felt some envy. But some of them had expressed envy at our experiences which, compared to theirs, seemed more fulfilling. They had. We were.

We survived the stay because we had, or had developed in the process, what Secretary del Rosario called for in his third message: We had a great sense of humor! We chose to find the funny, and in many instances the sublime, in what otherwise would have been sad, sorry and sordid experiences.

Those years are decades into my past, and yet, even today, when I travel around the country, I meet a few people who will stare at me and with the shock of recognition, call out my name or title, then give me the warmest of smiles and the friendliest of handshakes while recalling the times when our office came through for them so they could do their jobs which was to serve their communities.

As I recalled those times, I cannot help but think that we must change the way we recruit people into government service. I think we ought not to look only for the best of technical and academic credentials — which often come coupled with expectations of greater remunerations, privileges and the trappings of high office. I think we should look for the eagerness to serve, to be with our people who need attention the most because their needs are the most basic.

I think we should make fond familiarity with the country and its many geographic features, and its diverse people with their diverse cultures, a must for being invited into government service. One cannot love a place or a people one hardly knows and has known little of.

I think, too, that we should do something to upgrade government salaries and the budgets allocated for travel so that head office people can be encouraged to travel to the communities and see for themselves the operating realities so that they may craft realistic plans.

To be sure, not all of government service has become “employment of last resort.” To be sure, not all who join government join because “they have nowhere else to go.” But the service quality has so deteriorated and the actuations of a prominent group so palpably corrupt that one wonders whether anything short of a bloody revolution will change anything.

This administration has four years or more to go. It has the chance to make the needed difference. Let it start with a revamp of the systems to government so that the good people in it can do the good they wish to do for our people who need the good the most.

A meaningful Christmas season and a better years for us all!

Article location : http://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?Section=Opinion&title=‘Don’t join government…’&id=43141

PH to receive $23B in remittances


Developing Countries to Receive Over $350 Billion in Remittances in 2011, Says World Bank Report

World Bank Press Release No:2012/175/DEC
Geneva, December 1, 2011 (Washington DC, November 30, 2011 8pm) – Remittance flows to developing countries are expected to total $351 billion this year, and worldwide remittances, including those to high-income countries, will reach $483 billion [corrected from $406 billion on December 5] for the current calendar year, according to a newly updated World Bank brief on global migration and remittances.


The top recipients of officially recorded remittances, estimated for 2011, are India ($58 billion), China ($57 billion), Mexico ($24 billion), and the Philippines ($23 billion). Other large recipients include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Vietnam, Egypt and Lebanon.


While the economic slowdown is dampening employment prospects for migrant workers in some high-income countries, global remittances, nevertheless, are expected to stay on a growth path and, by 2014, are forecast to reach $593 billion [corrected from $515 billion on December 5]. Of that, $441 billion will flow to developing countries, according to the latest issue of the Bank’s Migration and Development Brief, released today at the fifth meeting of the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Geneva.


“Despite the global economic crisis that has impacted private capital flows, remittance flows to developing countries have remained resilient, posting an estimated growth of 8 percent in 2011,” said Hans Timmer,Director of the Bank’s Development Prospects Group“Remittance flows to all developing regions have grown this year, for the first time since the financial crisis.”


High oil prices have helped provide a cushion for remittances to Central Asia from Russia and to South and East Asia from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Also, a depreciation of currencies of some large migrant-exporting countries (including Mexico, India and Bangladesh) created additional incentives for remittances as goods and services in these countries became cheaper in U.S. dollar terms.


Remittance flows to four of the six World Bank-designated developing regions grew faster than expected — by 11 percent to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 10.1 percent to South Asia, 7.6 percent to East Asia and Pacific and 7.4 percent to Sub-Saharan Africa, despite the difficult economic conditions in Europe and other destinations of African migrants.


In contrast, growth in remittance flows to Latin America and the Caribbean, at 7 percent, was lower than expected due to continuing weakness in the U.S. economy, while the Middle East and North Africa, affected by civil conflict and unrest related to the “Arab Spring”, registered the slowest growth (2.6 percent) among developing regions.


The Bank expects continued growth in remittance flows going forward, by 7.3 percent in 2012, 7.9 percent in 2013 and 8.4 percent in 2014.


There are, however, some serious downside risks to the Bank’s outlook for international remittance and migration flows. Persistent unemployment in Europe and the U.S. is affecting employment prospects of existing migrants and hardening political attitudes toward new immigration. Volatile exchange rates and uncertainty about the direction of oil prices also present further risks to the outlook for remittances.


More recently, some of the GCC countries, which are critically dependent on migrant workers, are considering tighter quotas for migrant workers to protect jobs for their own citizens.


“Such policies may impact remittance flows to developing countries in the longer term,” said Dilip Ratha,Manager of the Bank’s Migration and Remittances Unit and a co-author of the Migration and Development Brief. “But in the medium-term the risk of disruption to these flows is relatively low.”


Remittance flows would receive a further boost if the global development community achieves the agreed objective of reducing global average remittance costs by 5 percentage points in 5 years (the ’5 by 5’ objective of the G8 and the G20).


Remittance costs have fallen steadily from 8.8 percent in 2008 to 7.3 percent in the third quarter of 2011 due to increasing competition in large volume remittance corridors such as UK-Nigeria and UAE-India. However, remittance costs continue to remain high, especially in Africa and in small nations where remittances provide a life line to the poor. 


“In addition to streamlining regulations governing remittance service providers, there is a pressing need to improve data on remittance market size at the national and bilateral corridor level,” said Ratha. “That will stimulate market competition and also help in more accurate monitoring of progress towards the ‘5 by 5’ objective.”


The World Bank has made considerable strides in developing financing instruments for leveraging migration and remittances for national development purposes. Diaspora bonds can be a powerful financial instrument for mobilizing diaspora savings to finance specific public and private sector projects, as well as to help improve the debt profile of the destination country. The Bank has established a Task Force on the Implementation of Diaspora Bonds to facilitate the provision of technical assistance to developing country governments.


“The Bank now houses considerable expertise in this area and we look forward to working with client governments in developing alternative sources of financing for development projects,” said Ratha.


The full report and the latest migration and remittances data are available at www.worldbank.org/migration

Playing catch-up: what PH often has to do

From BusinessWorld December 13, 2011

Philippines needs to play catch-up — IMF

THE PHILIPPINES — seen as a laggard compared with its neighbors — needs sustained macroeconomic stability, additional revenues and increased government spending if it is to equal emerging market peers.

Periods of growth were not sustained given the absence of strong and persistent economic reforms, according to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) Working Paper titled “The Determinants of Economic Growth in the Philippines: A New Look.”

“To catch up with its East Asian counterparts, the Philippines will need to maintain macroeconomic stability, expand its fiscal space and redirect public spending to agriculture, infrastructure, and research and development,” wrote author Willa Boots J. Tolo, who was a researcher at the IMF Manila office and now an officer at the central bank.

She noted the Philippine economy was at par with the benchmark in 1965-1983 before it was hit by political unrest, a string of natural disasters, and economic turmoil in 1984 that was followed by a deceleration in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) growth. This was followed by the lack of investments in agriculture, industry, manufacturing and services.

The paper placed the Philippines in the same group with slower growing emerging economies such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and South Africa.

The top performing emerging countries included Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, China and India, while classified as moderately growing were Egypt, Turkey, Mongolia and Pakistan.

For faster growth to be recorded, the government needs to increase its fiscal space to help hike public investments, Ms. Tolo said. She added that higher government spending would require “raising tax revenue through both administrative and selective tax policy measures.”

Also, “Better irrigation, access to fertilizers, farm-to-market roads, and storage facilities could support development in the agricultural sector.”

Economic growth was just 3.6% as of September, well below the official 5-6% target and the 4.5-5.5% forecast. This prompted the IMF to cut its full-year outlook for 2011 to 3.7% from 4.7% previously. — N. J. C. Morales

Article location : http://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?Section=TopStory&title=Philippines needs to play catch up IMF&id=43254

Wanted: fire fighting equipment for PH fire stations

From BusinessWorld December 13, 2011

Aquino: Country lacking in fire-fighting equipment, donations welcomed

THE COUNTRY is lacking in fire-fighting equipment and the government is dependent on private funding to service fire stations, President Benigno S. C. Aquino III said yesterday.

Sa 1,496 na munisipyo sa buong bansa, 642 pa ang walang istasyon ng bumbero. Kung susukatin po ayon sa populasyon, kailangan ng Pilipinas ng 3,425 na truck, at sa ngayon po ay 1,526 lang ang operational sa mga truck natin [Out of 1,496 municipalities nationwide, 642 do not have fire stations. Based on population, the Philippines needs 3,425 trucks but right now we only have 1,526 operational trucks),” said Mr. Aquino during the silver anniversary of the Association of Volunteer Fire Chiefs and Fire Fighters.

Mr. Aquino noted that fire prevention efforts are largely assisted by volunteers who assist the Bureau of Fire Protection and Safety in the National Capital Region, and the patrons who contribute to the cause.

Tuwing nagtatalumpati ako sa harap ng mga dalubhasa’t propesyonal sa iba’t ibang larangan, ang madalas ko pong panawagan: mag-ambag kayo para sa ikabubuti ng kalagayan ng inyong kapwa [Whenever I address professionals in various sectors, I always call for contributions to better the situation of your fellowmen],” the President said.

Mr. Aquino noted that from January to October, volunteer fire fighters had responded to more than 400 incidents, and almost 700 situations required rescue and paramedic assistance, apart from promoting fire and disaster awareness, rescue training, disaster aftermath assistance and medical missions.

Hindi po biro ang tulong na ibinibigay ninyo sa gobyerno, lalo pa’t marami-rami pa po tayong kailangang bunuin upang mapatibay ang sektor ng Fire Prevention and Safety, dahil na rin tila nakaligtaan ito ng gobyerno sa loob ng mahabang panahon [The assistance that volunteers give to the government is no light matter, especially because we need to address so many issues to strengthen our fire prevention and safety, because in the past years, this seems to have been neglected by the government),” Mr. Aquino said.

Article location : http://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?Section=Nation&title=Aquino: Country lacking in fire fighting equipment, donations welcomed&id=43242

A different view on Christmas

I read this article recently and its a very different view on Christmas where the writer raised some interesting issues a Catholic like me normally do not give any thought having accepted it as gospel truth.

Divine invention?

From the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend magazine 3 December 2011

By Fenella Souter

The Christmas story has been told for more than 2000 years, but even the experts can’t agree on the facts.It used to infuriate my mother, a woman of religious inclination and grammatical rectitude, to see “Xmas” written instead of “Christmas” all through December. It was ugly and she felt it took the Christ right out of Christmas. As sacrilege, it was on a par with going to the Royal Easter Show on Good Friday. (Or even on Easter Monday. We had to wait until “Children’s Day” on the Tuesday, by which time all the good stuff was gone.)But was the infant Jesus, historical figure or divinity, ever actually in Christmas, if by “Christmas” we mean any events that took place over 2000 years ago on the evening of December 25? Dismiss it as a technicality, but December 25 seems to have been chosen as Christ’s birthday several centuries after his death, possibly because the infant Christian movement needed a celebration to rival the pagan midwinter festivals that were all the rage under Roman rule.Was it Jesus’s birthday? It’s unlikely, although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the Pope, supported the view that it was, on the basis it was nine months after March 25, Annunciation Day, when an angel is said to have told Mary of Jesus’s coming birth.

Inconveniently for the modern mind, however, the Bible comes largely without particular dates, which leaves much to speculation, Holmesian deduction and the needs of faith.

For that matter, was Jesus even born in Bethlehem? Should we, for accuracy’s sake, be singing O Little Town of Nazareth? Without wanting to ruin the magic of Christmas, the entire splendid pageant of shepherds, stable, the Magi (the wise men), manger, innkeeper, gifts, even the donkey, is highly questionable as history, not to mention the “wandering” star as science.

None of this will come as a surprise to atheists, although even to them the story is so familiar it has taken on the ring of, shall we say, gospel truth. No, the surprise is how many believers, eminent biblical scholars, have struggled with the logic and contradictions of this simple Christian staple, so taken for granted. And these, remember, are people accustomed to suspending disbelief, something of a prerequisite when reading the Bible.

Some have gone so far as to suggest it was in part a strategic piece of biography, written to bolster the faltering early Christian movement’s claim to Jesus Christ as the messiah. His adult life and death had been documented in other gospels, but arguably their leader, on the face of it a man of dubious parentage from a dead-end town, now needed a more compelling backstory. A story full of mystery and wonder, one that would suggest he had been divine from the start; a kind of glorious prequel, Jesus, the Infant Years, that would echo down the ages.

Away in a manger

here’s the first obstacle to credibility. the nativity story appears in only two of the New Testament‘s four gospels – Matthew and Luke. It’s a matter of debate, but many contemporary scholars now believe both gospels were written (by unknown authors) later than the other two, and some 50 to 90 years after Christ’s death. Indeed, the nativity story doesn’t appear to have formed part of the earliest Christian preaching at all.

Second hurdle, it’s not one story. It’s two, and the accounts of Matthew and Luke are not just different; they’re contradictory. Some examples: Matthew’s gospel has the young Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph apparently live. It’s here that the wise men come to visit. There’s no mention of an overcrowded inn, a stable, an angelic chorus or wandering hillside shepherds. (Much of the familiar loveliness is to be found in Luke.)

Luke, on the other hand, has Mary and Joseph travelling to the stable in Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth (a journey of 140 kilo-metres), apparently for a census, with a heavily pregnant Mary on a donkey. Both Matthew and Luke seem eager for Jesus’s birthplace to be recorded as Bethlehem, city of King David, rather than the undistinguished Nazareth.

Matthew has Magi, but no shepherds. Luke has shepherds and the angelic chorus, but no Magi.

Matthew has the story of Herod, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flight into Egypt. Luke has no mention of the massacre or of any fleeing. Instead, in Luke, the family calmly stays on in Bethlehem for the circumcision ceremony.

Matthew has Joseph as a central character. It is Joseph, about to break with the pregnant Mary to whom he is only betrothed, who dreams the angel’s message explaining Mary has been impregnated by the Holy Ghost. No angelic annunciation is made to Mary. That happens only in Luke, where the angel Gabriel visits Mary, but not Joseph.

Of angels and miracle births

both gospels mention an angelic announcement that Jesus is to be the saviour. Both accounts mention a virgin birth or, to be precise, virgin conception, via the Holy Ghost. Curiously, however, Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels to record this amazing event that proved Jesus Christ’s divine origin.

How to explain the commonalities in two independently written accounts? Matthew and Luke, like much of the New Testament, parallel stories, prophecies and even phrasing found in the Old Testament and other ancient sources. The story of Moses, for example, or the prophecies of Isaiah. Even the form of words used by angelic messengers follows a familiar, accepted formula. Likewise, adding picturesque fictional details to highlight theological teaching was a long-standing literary tradition of the time. It was expected.

These nods to the Old Testament served a larger purpose than the merely mystical. Some scholars speculate the references were part of a strategy to place Jesus within the grand narratives of Jewish myth and Jewish biblical interpretation.

Likewise, a virgin birth would have been a far less preposterous idea then. The antique pantheon bristles with them. Other greats said to have been conceived without sex include Krishna, the Hindu god whose story is often paralleled with Christ’s; Buddha, whose mother, on the night of his conception, dreamt of a white elephant entering her side; Mithra, the sun god of Persia, dating from about 600BC, who was variously said to have been born of a virgin mother or to have sprung from a rock wall. (His birth date is sometimes given as December 25. He was also said to have had 12 companions, partaken of a sacred meal of bread and wine, been called “the good shepherd”, and to have been crucified and resurrected to atone for the sins of mankind.)

Even Pythagoras and Plato were retrospectively given supernatural arrivals – born of woman via the power of a holy spirit.

Every faith wants to be special, so how was Christianity to square away the copycat and, worse, pagan overtones of much early Christian thought, testimony and practice? There have been some smooth attempts. In her book about the cult of the Virgin Mary, Alone of All Her Sex, British novelist and historian Marina Warner cites the early Christian scholar Origen who put forward an explanation later adopted by influential 19th-century British cardinal John Newman and 20th-century German Jesuit Hugo Rahner. Origen argued “that God prepared the world for the greatest mystery of all, the Incarnation of his son, with a sequence of beliefs and creeds and symbols that foreshadowed it and thus made its acceptance easier”.

Hail Mary, full of grace

the nativity story isn’t only about jesus.

It’s also about Mary. Astonishingly for a figure who now looms so large, Mary rates only cursory, and not very complimentary, mentions elsewhere in the New Testament. It’s the Lucan version of the nativity story that gives her a brief but starring role, made far more stellar as centuries passed. Crucially, that story helped establish her as the ideal of womanhood, so unlike Eve – the demure, perpetual virgin: powerless, obedient, receptive.

Her image of piety and compassion has comforted millions of believers around the world. She has inspired some of the world’s most sublime art. But the effect of the virgin myth on real women, and for that matter on real sex, has been profound, and not always in a good way.

In his book Born of a Woman, John Shelby Spong, the American liberal theologian and renegade Episcopalian ex-bishop, opens with a sentence that reads more like a feminist manifesto: “For most of the 2000 years of history since the birth of our Lord, the Christian church has participated in and supported the suppression of women.”

Of the Virgin Mary, he writes, “No female figure in Western history rivals her in setting standards.” Because she’s always referred to as the Virgin, she has contributed to “that peculiarly Christian pattern of viewing women primarily in terms of sexual function”. That is, virginal nuns or prolific mothers. (Of course, one might ask whether that attitude is peculiarly Christian.)

Early Christian belief declared Mary not just a young virgin, but a lifelong one, even after Jesus’s birth. Jesus’s apparent siblings, or step-siblings, if you like, James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (not Iscariot), as well as some unnamed sisters, mentioned in the gospels, were later explained away as “cousins”, Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage or just “brethren” in the general sense.

But even that wasn’t pure enough. In 1854, in an act of defiance against Enlightenment rationalism, says Marina Warner, Pope Pius IX formalised a belief that had been vigorously debated since the 12th century. His papal bull declared the Virgin Mary “the Immaculate Conception”. Although conceived to human parents the usual way, she was now said to be the only human ever created free of the stain of original sin, from the moment of her “soul’s creation”. Vale Eve, hail Mary.

As Warner observes, it meant Mary (Mariam) was no longer a poor Jewish girl barely mentioned in the New Testament. Now, “in purity she excelled the angels, though not in intelligence”.

The “scandal of the crib”

“birth stories [of great figures] are always fanciful … never historical,” writes John Shelby Spong. “No one waits outside a maternity ward for a great person to be born.”

The controversial ex-bishop isn’t alone in suggesting Christ’s infancy was dressed up in retrospect, gilded with indicators of future greatness that weren’t noted at the time. Scholars like Richard Trexler, author of The Journey of the Magi, have also suggested political as well as religious motives. Just as Jesus’s story needed to match the great traditions of Judaic and ancient thought, the messiah of the fledgling Christian movement needed recognition from powerful outsiders like the Gentiles. Impartial witnesses to his divine origins would help; for example, non-Jews like wise men from the orient.

Spong, a clear-eyed lover of scripture but not fundamentalism, argues that the second generation of early Christians sought to elevate Jesus from man – “born of a woman”, as Paul says – to mythic hero. Probing his early origins, however, may have uncovered the awkward business of “the scandal of the crib”: Mary’s premarital pregnancy. Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married when Joseph learnt she was pregnant. He had been about to discreetly break with her. According to Warner, slanders and nasty rumours had circulated about Jesus’s parentage.

The solution, Spong suggests, lay in reinterpreting the events in mystical tradition. “He [Jesus] was a nobody … No one seemed to know his father,” he writes. “He might well have been illegitimate. Hints of that are scattered like undetected and unexploded nuggets of dynamite in the landscape of the early Christian tradition … [So] the interpretive task went to work … He was not an illegitimate child, God was his father;

he was born of the Holy Spirit. He was not a native of Nazareth, he was born in Bethlehem, the City of David … His birth was not unnoticed. Angels sang of him, shepherds journeyed to his manger, Eastern sages brought gifts that foretold his greatness.” He must be divine.

Does it matter, in the end, the truth of the nativity stories, eventually combined as the single story we know today? Do we care? Perhaps we should, for this reason. The embroidery of the narrative took away something precious, argues Spong. Lost was “the simple truth that God could be seen and experienced in the self-giving love emerging from the life and heart of a betrayed, denied, forsaken, executed man”; an unassuming teacher called Jesus of Nazareth, who cared nothing for pomp and ceremony, for kings or riches.

Is that a tale, however, that would still be being told more than 2000 years later?

The making of Christmas

with or without faith, christmas has become the global festival. Even the Japanese go crazy about it and theirs is not a Christian nation.

It wasn’t always so. In England in the 17th century, the Puritan parliament made the celebration of Christmas, and saints days, illegal for about 20 years, until the Restoration. So did the Massachusetts Puritans. Neither considered December 25 a true holy day. Nowhere in the Bible, they thundered, had God demanded a

celebration of Christ’s nativity. (Fundamentalist-inclined groups such as Seventh-day Adventists still don’t celebrate it for that reason.)

They disliked both its popish and its pagan overtones, and deplored the rowdy drinking, feasting and gambling the public seemed to so enjoy. Calvinists, Presbyterians and Methodists weren’t fans, either. There are no Christmas sermons in the published sermons of the famous Methodist preacher John Wesley, although he did acknowledge the day as a holy one in the Christian calendar.

Some people continued to celebrate Christmas clandestinely in England and the US, but it was a relatively minor affair. A study of the December issues of London’s The Times from 1790 to 1836 found that in 20 of those 47 years, the newspaper did not mention Christmas at all. In the other 27 years, the mentions were extremely brief.

Before the middle of the 19th century, it was of so little regard in the US, now headquarters of tinselled hysteria, that Congress would meet on Christmas Day, public schools were in session and businesses stayed open. Christmas was not a legal holiday in any state in the US until the 1830s.

Christmas traditions had never died in Europe, especially in Catholic countries like Italy and France, and in northern Europe, with its pagan-inspired yuletide customs, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Christmas made a solid comeback in England and the US. And it came with a rush. By 1868, we find Jo in Little Women famously grumbling that “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”.

But what constituted “Christmas”? In fact, up until then, it had been a hodgepodge of local traditions, celebrated communally and sprinkled liberally with pagan customs. Industrialisation, urbanisation and Queen Victoria’s marriage to a sentimental European, however, helped fuel a vogue for a more unified, decorous and domestic approach. Upper-class English traditions moved down the scale. Albert popularised German customs like the Christmas tree, set on a table. Clean-living carol singing took off. Christmas cards and colourful wrapping paper became the fashion.

It was, of course, a much smaller world. Charles Dickens’s popular morality tale A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, fuelled a general taste for this refashioned Christmas, a more saccharine, middle-class affair, streaked with family values and a nostalgia for “forgotten” traditions. His tear-wringing tale has turkey, Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding, the pure but ailing Tiny Tim and the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. There is virtually no reference to the nativity.

Santa Claus

washington irving’s mentions of st nicholas – aka Father Christmas and Santa Claus – had a similar effect on Christmas sentiment in the US.

St Nicholas, a figure of uncertain origins but a gift-giver by most accounts, had long been beloved by Europeans. Too beloved, the Church came to feel, hostile to any interlopers now that it had so thoroughly appropriated December. Santa had to go.

In 1951, the French Catholic clergy went so far as to support a lynch mob, with the French newspaper France Soir reporting this extraordinary incident: “Dijon, 24 December: Father Christmas was hanged yesterday afternoon from the railings of Dijon Cathedral and burnt publicly in the precinct. This spectacular execution took place in the presence of several hundred Sunday school children. It was a decision made with the agreement of the clergy who had condemned Father Christmas as a usurper and heretic.”

and what about christmas in australia? Christmas was an unhappy transport to the far-away colony, early on declared a holiday only if it fell on a Sunday. Even before Federation, doubts were expressed about how a festival held in the middle of the northern winter could successfully be moved south.

In the 1860s, novelist Marcus Clarke wrote with scorn of people who felt obliged to keep up the snow-bound traditions of England: “It may be rank heresy, but I deliberately affirm that Christmas in Australia is a gigantic mistake.”

Yet we kept on with it, generation after generation, sweat-inducing flaming pudding and all, obediently mimicking the English traditions, including traditional family tension, until someone decided seafood and a cold collation was allowed.

Christmas, it seems, is what you make of it. And by the way, “Xmas” isn’t a newfangled, godless term, either. Based on a Greek symbol, it has been in common use since the 16th century.

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