The nativity. I never wondered what that meant. But I grew up with the little scene displayed in my house every Christmas. In Italy though what I saw was at another level. Creative scenes, giant scenes, miniatures, Picasso like deconstructions. One scene on display in the crypt of a cathedral was made of stones hot-glue-gunned together to resemble donkeys, little baby Jesus, Kings bearing gifts. The Italian name for Christmas is Natale and so I could put it off no longer: I learned that nativity means birth site, and the Italian name for the holiday uses the same latin root for birth.
I noticed with admiration one nativity scene that actually resembled Bethlehem, that town in Palestine about 45 miles from Amman. Stone houses. Camels with the right number of humps. But most of the scenes featured fir trees, windmills, and other white-Jesus nonsense.
Many of the Italian scenes pictured the three Kings with specific skin colors. Even when the scene was a little deconstructed, for instance with the glued stones, they used pale, tan, and dark stones. I decided to read up on the Magi. I learned that of the 4 gospels that made it into the Bible, only my namesake Matthew mentions the visitors bearing gifts. He doesn't mention their number, or that they were Kings.
🎶 We N people of Orient are, tried to smoke a rubber cigar 🎶
That's pretty thin stuff to start with if you end up thinking you know the skin colors of the Three Kings. These over specific Italian devotees imagine a Turkish King, an Arab King, and a Yemeni King. Did they text each other to meet up? I mean sure, they saw the star. But it's 2,000 miles from Ankara to Aden. They'd be lucky to find each other and then as a group get to Jesus in time to see his first steps. If they got lost they might miss him altogether. He died young.
But of course it's all horse shit. Old horse shit, but unlike shit, ideas don't become more appealing to me just because they have had time to age. Nor do I place extra value on a person because they are perceived by others as important. Caligula had ideas that are now old, and he was important. You gonna emulate Caligula? The most salient fact about the Pope to me is that he employs pedophiles and people who cover up for pedophiles. If he was drowning I'd save his life, after I saved everyone else first. In the Pope’s defense, there are similar figures in the Muslim world who make it a crime to even voice a negative opinion about them. I'd struggle to save their lives at all.
Some people are deathly allergic to peanuts. They can't really eat at restaurants. Travel is difficult. They can be harmed drinking from the same glass as another who had also eaten a peanut butter sandwich. It is a terrible curse, narrowing and complicating the lives of those with the allergy. I have more sympathy for the condition now, because for a while my body was very sensitive to gluten. That mild condition shrunk my options and made me a burden to those around me. “Let’s get Pizza. Aw shit, Matt’s here”. It made me a terrible traveler. The food of the middle East? Where they've found bread 15,000 years old?
There are restrictions on what you can eat (and how the food can be prepared) in all the Abrahamic religions, and many others as well. These amount to a voluntary food allergy, the choice to face restrictions from eating commonly served and nutritious food. Good luck explaining that you can only eat an animal from certain species, and only if specific arteries were severed with a certain kind of knife that cut with a certain kind of motion while on vacation in Thailand.
I've heard of places in Africa that maintain 2 kitchens, one for Muslims and another for Christians, because they can't eat food from a kitchen that contained meat slaughtered incorrectly. Mind you this restriction comes to both from their shared Jewish history. And both rules have the same aim (mercy, sanitation) but because their recent history has slightly different versions of the rules, there are two different kitchens in restaurants.
So yeah, you’ve got dinner guests. Some of them will die if you put peanuts in the sauce, others are losing their intestines to an autoimmune disease and if you use flour in the gravy you will hasten the process. And then there are these other guests who want to be sure that you either did or did not yell “Allah” when you killed the goat. Who do you have sympathy for?
These restrictions come to us as a sort of holy health code. At one time they were the state of the art in terms of guiding the population to create a safe food supply. We may still struggle with lettuce, but the modern world has made great strides with meat, and the religions have been left behind.
Speaking of being left behind, did you know that the Muslim calendar has 355 days? It consists of 12 moon cycles, and as the years go by they tolerate the way that the same day in the calendar will occur in different seasons. It seems the prophet Mohammad was born on approximately the same day as I was (in late April, in Spring), but this year everyone had a day off to celebrate and make donuts in his honor during November. Back in 2015, Jesus and Mohammad shared a birthday!
I think it is wonderful that the old calendar is maintained. It doesn’t confuse things too much because the western calendar is used for day-to-day stuff. So it is possible to get a flight from place to place and not go nuts. I also love the old tradition of the three kings and the Nativity scenes. The Italian dioramas were creative and fun, and wouldn’t exist if not for the tradition.
But not every tradition is so benign. Those African kitchens took twice the resources to create, and what happens to leftovers if they were made on the Christian side and only Muslims are hungry? There is a gold tomb in Cologne to house the bones of the three kings. Gold isn’t all that valuable sitting in a church. I bet it could have saved many lives over the years if it had been exchanged for food. After all, there never were any three kings, that’s just a gold box keeping some random person’s bones from their proper grave. Much persecution of gays has been excused by religious tenet. Women are often oppressed and treated as less than equal with religion as an excuse. People willingly mutilate the genitals of their children in the name of religion. And this cruelty, waste, and failure happens in peaceful times. How much war has been waged for gods?
Religions come and go. No doubt we lost some to prehistory. And new ones come along. Should the wastes and persecutions of Abrahamic religions be accepted because they are old? Should the new crimes of Scientologists be excused because after all they do no worse than other, older religions? When the last Zoroastrian dies is it like losing a treasured endangered species, or like the elimination of smallpox?
I love the traditions, I love the finery and the art that religion has inspired. I love the nativity scenes. I do feel that when the last Zoroastrian dies we will lose something. But on the balance I think religions have been more like Smallpox than Pandas.