…’but is it a real person Mummy?’, ‘it’s a real person T, but they are dressed up to pretend to be toys’, ‘real toys?’, ‘no just a costume and face paint to look like a toy’.
T has been off school, we were sitting together at the end of the morning watching an old Christmas movie all about someone ending up in toy land, and yes it was a little confusing, we met characters as the film began, and then after a bump on the head a character got sucked into a dream world in a similar fashion to Alice in wonderland.
…’but is it really a real person Mummy? today? dressed up?’, ‘no not today, but yes a real person dressed up, pretending – like you dressing up to be a sheep in the school play, you were still real T weren’t you’… ‘is it real person eyes?’, ‘yes T, real person eyes’, ‘real person claws?’ (the villain has bird like talons) ‘no, make up and stick on claws so it looks real.’ – ‘But who is it? is it a real bird? is it a real person bird?’…
In the afternoon, it was Daddy at home with T & A so that B & I could go over to church and get the puppets into costume for their appearance in the carol service this coming Sunday evening. Puppets, animated by ‘real people’s’ hands, dressed up as characters from the nativity.
Storytelling is wonderful, so richly layered; it has that kind of depth that can resonate with experience and context, with both teller and hearer through the generations and across the boundaries of culture. With fabric and face paint, puppets, drawings, filming and with spoken or written words we can create or dress a character and bring a story to life.
And its the time of year for telling what many would consider part of the the greatest story ever told. But all those rich layers, and tactile textures we use in the telling can be tricky as well as wonderful with ASD. Sometimes a little support is needed to explore the textures, sights and smells and to recognize the precious meaning, and truth cradled in those well loved words and phrases that have wrapped the story as it has been handed carefully on generation after generation.
It is often difficult for my girls to spot the way some words or details carry more weight than others in a story, or to instinctively get how description of a place or atmosphere can be more for the sake of revealing intention or the emotion of the character than anything else. And sometimes if that is how descriptions are used, it seems difficult to accept how can story be thought of as ‘real’ or true when it doesn’t seem concerned with objective accuracy in recording concrete physical details. It may take me a while to explore and explain that the word ‘story’ carries in itself different meanings ranging from its casual use to signify a fictional (made up) tale right through to it’s use as a word to signify a uniquely personal account of real events, and covers what’s in between!
There seems to be an ever present urgent need for accuracy, and precision, and a need for absolutely detailed consistency. When I read bedtime stories they become familiar after just one read usually, word perfect familiar – nothing can be missed out or skipped, nothing can be added without being noticed and corrected. And certainly for T at the moment there is a preoccupation with pinning down and establishing the boundaries around what is real and what is not.
I remember an all age worship where the people leading were doing a little sketch at the beginning of the service to lead into the subject for the day… one had brought a surprise chocolate cake and told the other not to touch while she fetched other party things out of the car… she left, but of course while she was out at the back the other gave in to temptation, licked a bit, scooped a bit, bit a bit… and then of course they brilliantly acted out the outcome, the disappointment & the guilt – and where was I, well I had been near the front, but as T (only little at the time) had started to shout and cry and point at the one ‘being naughty’ I had had to take her to the back kicking and struggling to try & calm her down… it was actually really difficult to unravel with her what was real and what was pretending to help us think – it took quite a while for her to see the leaders in the same way afterwards. Some of that will have been her age at the time, but that struggle continues when faced with storytelling.
All of this requires some thought at this time of year. There are many familiar phrases that cradle the Nativity Story, in the carols, the scripts and Bible translations, the cultural and family traditions. And some need some explanation, and some help may be needed to recognize together the precious meaning and truth they try to convey.
It’s confusing, for example, that we talk about Jesus being born just like us; God being born fully into our human experience – as a baby ready to grow and mature and live in community with God and others, yet we sing the phrase from ‘Away in a manger’ from an early age which does not fit at all with our understanding of what it is to be a real baby…
The cattle are lowing,
The baby awakes,
But little lord Jesus no crying he makes…
Some would say that these words were written seeking to emphasize Jesus’ divinity rather than his humanity. I sometimes wonder also if it reflects an idea of perfection we no longer say we hold to – a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ kind of perfection where a baby who is passive and quiet is called a ‘good’ baby instead of an easier one!
Either way it can give an unhelpful gloss, which can distance us from the reality of that not so silent night. When we talk about the Nativity together how often do we stay at that distance in our thinking, seeing a scene like a painting; or how often do we reflect on the unspoken details of that night, the pain of childbirth, the mess, the crying, and what did Mary have with her to use for nappies, or to clean him, where did the cloth come from to swaddle him – Joseph’s cloak maybe, or brought by a local woman called on to act as midwife perhaps? (And why did we translate using the word stable – yes animals and a manger or a food trough but could it have been that they stayed in the family room rather than an upstairs guest room – animals would have been brought into the one room home, for safety and warmth, could it have looked more like a cave than a ‘stable’ as we think of them, could it have been more like a sheltered sheep pen on the outskirts of the village?)
Another example is the way we combine all the gospel accounts to tell the story without saying out loud that’s what we are doing, it can set in stone a pattern of telling that is actually only our way of doing it rather than true to the Bible accounts. An example I guess is the way we imply that the visit of the magi happens almost hours after the shepherds’ visit, because it is neater to tell the story all in one go, whereas in the Bible accounts it happens a considerable time later. (And of course we fall into talking about the 3 male kings, when all we are actually told is that they brought 3 rather expensive presents, were learned and traveled a considerable distance). With B now well & truly old enough to read for herself I wonder what she will make of these inconsistencies as she grows up? Will they mean that we the storytellers are wrong, or the Bible? And if the Bible, then will it become something untrustworthy for her as she hopefully carries her faith with her into adulthood.
We also often tell the story in among the extra, well loved traditions of Christmas, some with Christian roots others not, but either way extra to the Nativity. Year after year I find myself reflecting on how I can best help my children to discern the heart of Christmas in the midst of it all, and how as their parents Andrew and I can make clear what is important to us – what we really want to pass on to them, how we can be helpful in our words, and family traditions to distinguish between what we believe to be real, and what we believe to be a fun pretend. For us that has meant that we made some seemingly radical decisions when they were tiny, that some (rather important in our culture) traditions we have only ever joined in with as a wonderfully fun game – that we all take part in, taking it in turns to tiptoe & deliver to the end of each bed. We have not excluded the tradition completely but we have tried to consistently, and sensitively around other families (not always easy!), talk about it as a tradition that came about to remember a friend of Jesus from long ago whose life was generous and loving, and compassionate like Jesus.
But I do want to keep asking myself how much time and energy, how much enthusiasm, do we give to the different traditions of Christmas, and what will that teach our children about what we hold dear? And as new traditions come and go at Christmas which ones will we embrace and include, and how? How can we best shape Christmas to point to Jesus, and give each other the opportunity to visit him and kneel in worship (in a metaphorical sense of course! – but perhaps also real and concrete in a spiritual sense) alongside shepherds and wise ones?