A modern Nativity
A tonic for the tired and emotional at Christmas
Guest article by Gabrielle Annunziato
Preface by Occult Mysteries
We are indebted to Gabrielle Annunziato for her humorous and very perceptive pastiche of the well-known Christmas story. Having got to know the writer we can say that she has nothing but the highest regard for the teachings of Christ, though the same cannot be said for what the various churches have done to them over the centuries...She has also written a charming afterword in which she analyses the Christmas story to reveal something of its hidden meaning and essential message.
Once in Roy and David's City . . .
The lights of Bethlehem twinkled in the darkness as Mary and Joseph trudged wearily past yet another hoarding advertising Solstice trees. Conversation had flagged some hours before when their car, already on its last legs, finally expired on Highway 60. Mary was wholly absorbed with the new life which nestled within her. Joseph pondered whether he would have enough money left over for a beer once he had bought swaddling bands, whatever they were.
As they reached the outskirts of the town they began to pass houses lavishly decorated for the coming season of last-minute shopping, domestic abuse, binge drinking and payday loans. Gigantic snowmen on skis were illuminated by rows of multicoloured, flashing lights on every roof. Santa climbed tinsel ladders to every window. Illuminated, plastic elves frolicked on every driveway. The sound of the familiar Solstice jingles could be heard coming from every open shop doorway; 'I wish it could be Solstice every da-ay. I'm dreaming of a white Solstice. It's Solstice time, mistletoe and wine, the children shout get off that's mine, innit! Once in Roy and David's city', etc.
"Bugger," said Joseph. "I forgot it was late night shopping at Herods—it'll be a nightmare fighting through these crowds."
"Come off it Joe. I'm not walking miles, not in my condition," complained Mary, "You'll just have to find a taxi, won't you?"
"Taxi? At this time of night on Solstice Eve, what with the census and all. You must be kidding," said Joseph testily.
"Don't bloody-well start!" snapped Mary, administering a sharp slap to her husband.
"Ow! Don't start what?" asked Joseph, rubbing his cheek.
"Don't start going on about how you can't believe I got pregnant when you've been snipped and dragging you across Europe without a new non-EU passport because I want the baby to be born in Bethlehem! And that your mates think I've been having it off with some bloke pretending to be an angel. Don't think I don't know what you're planning. Wetting the baby's head is just another excuse for you to get rat-arsed. I didn't just fall off the Yule log you know!"
"I never said anything!" objected Joseph, somewhat rattled. "And anyway, where are we going to find a pub in this neck of the woods, eh?"
"You will," said Mary, "You always do."
"Chance would be a fine thing," said Joseph sulkily, "What with you in your condition." Mary folded her arms and glared at her husband.
Joseph trudged on, looking at the crude map drawn on the back of a census form. As they entered the town proper they joined a slow moving queue of Mercedes, BMWs and Porsche Cayennes which were blocking the road ahead. "Got to be somewhere round here," said Joseph as they passed the Jumbo Supermarket for the third time.
"Why can't we just stop and ask someone?" said Mary through gritted teeth.
"Look, if they find out we aren't on the census register some do-gooding Samaritan from the UNHCR will whip you into one of those shelters for asylum seekers," Joseph replied. "Anyway, look, the Holiday Inn is just over there," he continued, pointing down a narrow alley.
"What? That dump with the 'No Vacancies' sign lit up like a Solstice tree? I hope you haven't mucked up the reservation like you did for our honeymoon—if you can call it that! What a disappointment!" muttered Mary.
"I heard that," snapped Joseph. "There's no pleasing you is there? It wasn't my fault the hotel was miles from the beach and our room wasn't finished."
"Well HE could have moved it and given us a proper room," Mary smiled wistfully.
"Oh yes, I thought we would get round to HIM again. Look, we're not all omnipresent and omnipotent. This marriage isn't going to work if you keep comparing me with the Supreme Being."
"Do you want another slap?" asked Mary.
No room at the Holiday Inn
Joseph stepped nimbly out of Mary's reach and knocked at the door of the inn.
The door was opened by a girl with dyed blonde hair scraped back from her forehead and draped down her neck in a ponytail. Her four inch diameter gold earrings danced a jig as she spun round to face them. The only thing thicker than her makeup was the bone behind her vacant eyes. "We're full," she said by way of welcome. "On account of the census an' all."
"I think you'll find we have a reservation—Mr and Mrs Smith?" said Joseph.
"Oh, Mr and Mrs Smith is it?" said the girl, looking Mary up and down with a knowing smirk. "You don't look old enough to be married."
"I'm twenty-one," said Mary icily, "And a virgin. The Angel of the Lord visited me in a dream."
"A dream?" laughed the girl. "That's the first time I've 'eard it called that. This ain't that sorta hotel, y'know."
"What on earth were you thinking of?" whispered Mary. "Mr and Mrs Smith?' You idiot—we're married, we can use our real names."
"I thought it would be more um. . .romantic. . .darling," said Joseph, rather crestfallen.
"Look," said Mary with exaggerated patience. "In case it's escaped your notice I'm nine months pregnant. The last thing on my mind at the moment is romance." Turning to the girl she asked "Haven't you got anything at all?"
"Seein' as ya in the family way I s'pose ya can come in an' I'll 'ave a butchers, but I can't promise nuffink." She ushered them inside and tapped half-heartedly at her computer keyboard with her stylish purple and silver nail extensions. "Nah...not really..." she said.
Mary, sensing weakness, asked. "What do you mean—'not really'?"
"Well. . .we might 'ave summink under our 'Solstice super-break special four days for the price of five, first-born, male children under two go free, offer," she said in a high-pitched, grating monotone. "Trouble is ya ain't got no male littluns under the age of two, 'ave ya?"
"Well—not yet," gasped Mary as a contraction gripped her abdomen.
"Oh all right then," said the girl. "Seein' 'as it's Solstice you can 'ave the stable round the back."
"Stable?" asked Mary incredulously.
"Yeah, we keep a few donkeys for visitin' Evangelicals, them Yanks 'ave a fing about asses, innit. Only they cancelled this year on account of some geezer called Trump warnin' them not to travel to the Middle East. So it's like empty innit. Well, apart from the donkey what belongs to the innkeeper's granddaughter. Well, she calls it a pony, but it's a donkey really, only the poor moppet is a bit fore an' aft so she don't know that."
Joseph groaned, whether in response to the revelations of the receptionist or because of some deeper malaise wasn't clear. Mary helped him to his feet while the girl led the way to the stable.
Following them inside she asked "Sawdust or straw?"
"What?" said Mary.
"On the floor, do y' want sawdust or straw? Actually, now we're 'ere I see the innkeeper's installed the new combo option. Sawdust an' straw at no extra charge. Will ya be wantin' breakfast? We 'ave full Roman or the traditional loaves and fishes."
"Is the full Roman extra?" asked Mary.
"Nah, but you'd better come early 'cause the German Catholics 'ave it away with the pickled larks tongues before ya can say 'erods."
Mary leant heavily against the donkey as another contraction came and went.
"Will ya be wantin' a proper bed or will a manger do?"
"Do we have a choice?"
The girl tossed her ponytail over her shoulder. "Nah."
"So you expect me to give birth in a manger, do you?"
"D' ya want the room or not?" snapped the girl.
"Yes," gasped Mary through clenched teeth, clutching her abdomen.
"Well if I can just take some details," asked the girl as she started tapping on her keyboard. "I 'ave ya down as Mr an' Mrs Smith, 'erod Boulevard, Nazareth. 'ave ya got ya census papers?"
"Er...not as such," muttered Mary.
"Wot? Either ya got 'em or ya 'aven't. Which is it?"
"A stray camel ate them?" suggested Joseph brightly.
"Look," said Mary, gasping for breath. "I'm giving birth as I speak! Unless you want me to drop my baby at your feet, can we forget about the bloody census!"
"Ugh," exclaimed the girl, wrinkling her nose. "I shouldn't ya know. . . but seein' as me trainers cost me a mint at Primark I'll tick the box for the census. So. . .ya want the Solstice super-break special, full Roman, combo option on the floor, no extra charge for that, manger and a complementary bathrobe. Can I ask ya to just gimme details of ya unborn littlun, that's part of the new census rules too. All names and addresses 'ave to be sent to King 'erod innit."
"Jesus!" exclaimed Mary as another contraction gripped her. "Jesus H Christ!!!"
". . .middle initial 'H" droned the girl, still tapping away. "One last fing. Gender ident'y, wot shall I put ya down as bein'?"
"Fluid," gasped Mary as her waters suddenly broke.
The Coming of the Futures traders
King Herod leant back in his throne and surveyed the three sharply-dressed businessmen who stood before him. Melchior wore a yellow silk bandanna, loosely fitting black silk shirt and diamond encrusted jeans; he held a crystal ball in his hands and a pack of grubby tarot cards protruded from his pocket. Gaspar, a tall, Saudi in a keffiyeh and a flowing thawb, had an astrolabe tucked under his arm and stooped under the weight of a large shoulder bag stuffed with astrological charts and well-thumbed copies of 'Oil Futures Monthly'. The third traveller, Balthasar, wore a three-piece Armani suit and carried a gold iPad.
"Welcome—wise travellers from distant lands," said Herod with a smile that made every donkey within half a mile bray in terror. "What news of the Dow Jones? What fiscal wisdom can you share with us? What strange portents have caused you to travel so very far?"
Gaspar bowed low and in a singsong voice breezily intoned, "We three traders of futures are."
Balthasar interrupted, "Bearing gilts we travel afar."
Melchior took up the refrain, "Yield and accounting, profits mounting."
And all together they sang: "Following yonder star."
Herod looked up and, for the first time, noticed a flashing neon arrow in the sky pointing in the direction of Bethlehem. "What strange omen is this?" he asked.
"Let me guess," said Gaspar. "Likes to dictate, poor observational and social skills, and a problem with first-born sons. You're a Leo aren't you?"
"Aries, actually," said Herod smugly.
". . .or perhaps an Aries. I thought so. That would explain your fighting spirit and love of sophisticated weaponry."
"Who told you about that?" shouted Herod, leaping to his feet, his face purple with anger and spittle running from his lips. "One lousy missile launcher and a few barrels of Sarin and I am labelled as some sort of homicidal butcher for life!"
"It's written in the stars O mighty King."
"Is it? Bloody hell. Does that mean the Americans know?"
"Only through long and patient study can one unravel the mysterious messages in the heavens," intoned Gaspar gravely.
"What else is up there then?" asked Herod suspiciously.
Gaspar consulted his instruments and charts. "You will meet three strangers," he continued in a singsong voice. "They bring wise counsel, treat them generously and you will be rewarded with good fortune. Avoid lark's tongues in the morning and don't wear wool on a Thursday. Lucky colour red, lucky number 14."
Melchior stepped forward and held his crystal ball up to the light. His eyes rolled back as he began to intone "I see clouds, swirling black clouds. The clouds are parting. . .I see a tall kingly figure, with a missile launcher——"
"——I might as well take out an ad in the Jerusalem Times!" Herod interrupted.
". . .The figure is beckoning—three travellers approach. I see the king at a fork in the road. . .down one road the three travellers are in rags and the king is dead, men in dark suits with suspicious bulges under their left armpits gloat over his body. Down the second road the three travellers are well fed and carry rich gifts bestowed upon them by the king. The king has received a divine reward from a half-naked pole dancer. Wait! A completely naked pole-dancer with unusually large breasts. The reward is on a plate, it looks like a. . .oh. . .the clouds are swirling back."
Herod sat back in his throne, "How large?"
"Er . . .enormous," said Melchior.
"What can these strange omens mean?" the King asked. "Can you, wise Balthasar, shed light upon this mystery?"
Balthasar consulted his iPad. "Trading has been light over the past few days, O Herod, but we expect conditions to improve during the next financial quarter. Guest-workers, citrus fruits and armaments all appear over-valued just now so if you were taking anything less than a medium term view it might be worth considering some divestment. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are looking under-priced compared to their long-term trends so it may be time to consider some strategic purchases, perhaps even some form of derivative vehicle or default credit swop. In the longer term we see some political instability as a new King of the Jews arises, markets have not yet adjusted to this prospect but as they do we expect the value of Messiahs to rise sharply."
"Wise counsel indeed," said Herod stroking his beard. "As a reward you may enjoy a special buy three-get-one free-offer in my exclusive Solstice sale. Buy three different items and you get the cheapest free." Herod clapped his hands and the curtains parted to reveal the interior of a huge department store decorated in Saddam Hussein Empire style with tasteful new-Russian bling additions. Within could be seen serried rows of scented candles, striped tea-towels, toy sleighs, plastic Solstice trees, novelty whistles, Yule logs, mulled wine, biodynamic bath salts and an enormous pile of gold-plated Samsung Note 7's. Dozens of Herod's children ran around screaming excitedly while his wives and concubines looked on indulgently.
The futures traders considered the bargains on offer. "There's nothing here I want," said Melchior.
"But we get something free so that doesn't matter," said Gaspar.
"Ok, I'll have the lucky four-leaf clover on a gold chain," said Melchior.
"And I'll have this incense burner with the frankincense starter pack," said Gaspar.
"I want a mince pie," said Balthasar.
"No, you don't you idiot," Melchior and Gaspar chimed in together. "That's only worth half a shekel at most. Why not get something more expensive, it's not going to cost you anything."
"But I really do fancy a mince pie. . .or maybe that chocolate Yule log. . ."
"Look, you can stuff your face later. Just buy this myrrh for now," said Melchior.
"Myrrh?" exclaimed Balthasar. "What would I want that for? Isn't that the stuff Jews sprinkle on stiffs to mask the smell? I'll look a proper Charley waltzing into the stable with a bottle of that while you two give the Virgin Mary a frankincense starter pack and a bloody great four-leaved clover on a gold chain."
"It's an analgesic as well," explained Melchior patiently.
"An anal what?"
"Analgesic. Pain killer," added Gaspar helpfully.
"Bit late for that, isn't it?" asked Balthasar. "She'll have had the kid by the time we get there."
"Well it's the thought that counts. . ." muttered Melchior.
"What about this scented Solstice candle? Women adore candles."
"Look, you simpleton," Melchior hissed into his ear, "just buy the bloody myrrh will you?"
Balthasar cast a final, longing look at the mince pies and picked up the myrrh.
"Don't forget your free gifts!" said Herod. "I'm throwing in these very expensive Dolce & Gabbana Solstice crowns for nothing."
"Do we have to wear them?" complained Balthasar. "I hate dressing up for Solstice."
"Look," whispered Gaspar, "it's only a funny designer hat, put it on before Herod changes his mind and serves our heads up on a plate."
"Ka-ching," said Herod as he wrapped their purchases in festive paper decorated with a pattern of smiling Herods superimposed on a seasonal murdered babies motif. "Eastern Express?" he asked as the three futures traders simultaneously held out three plastic cards, "that'll do nicely."
Dismay in a Manger
Some hours later Mary held her newborn son in her arms. Joseph bore the fresh imprint of her fingers on his flushed cheek and nursed a range of bruises he had received from the donkey who was not best pleased at sharing his bedroom with two interlopers. The innkeeper's receptionist entered with a manger filled with straw and a bathrobe under her arm. "If ya don't stop that yellin' an' screamin' I'm gonna 'ave to ask ya to leave," she said haughtily. "Other guests 'ave started complainin' innit!" Then seeing the baby she continued in a gushing voice. "Oh, ain't 'e lovely, 'e looks just like 'is dad. Awww. . . ."
She left tunelessly singing 'awaay in a manger, no crib for is 'ead da lickle poor baby. . .'
At that moment there was a noise at the door and a shepherd put his head around the corner. "Er, 'ello love. Could we park our sheep in here?"
"Sheep?" asked Mary.
"For the orphan kiddies' Solstice dinner on account of the shortage of turkeys."
"Turkeys?" asked Joseph.
"They've all gone and voted for Trump in America," explained the shepherd.
"I don't believe this!" Mary exploded. "There is no way you're bringing sheep in here, we've already got an ox and a donkey."
"Ox?" asked Joseph.
"It wandered in after you fainted again," explained Mary patiently.
"Shouldn't there be an ass as well?" asked the shepherd.
"He's over there," said Mary looking pointedly at Joseph.
"Look, I'm not being funny but I've left my mates outside with the sheep," said the shepherd. "We've got to do something with them; the police are cracking down on traffic offences—they'll crucify me if I get caught double parked on Solstice Eve, especially as it's late-night shopping at Herods hypermarket."
"What do you think, Joe?" asked Mary wearily.
Before Joseph could answer there was a sound of jingling and a camel walked in. It wore a fine leather harness decorated with seasonal, gold Solstice trees and smiling elves.
"This can't be happening!" shrieked Mary. "I've just given birth half an hour ago and now I'm on some sort of tourist trail. If any more animals come in here we'll be able to open a safari park!"
Balthasar entered behind the camel and bowed low before Mary and the infant. "Sorry about the camel, but our stretched limo got snarled up in the census traffic and this beast happened to be handy. . .we come from afar to provide independent financial advice to the newborn King."
"King who?" asked Mary.
Sidling up to Joseph, Balthasar whispered conspiratorially into his ear. "We have also brought a few. . .um. . .no-obligation insider derivatives tips. . ."
"All that's missing is another joker in fancy dress," said Mary. "Oh and here he is," she added as Gaspar entered behind a magnificent Arab stallion wearing his novelty Solstice crown at a rakish angle on its head.
Joseph stepped forward resolutely. "Now look mate. . .I booked this stable. . .you can't just walz in here and. . ."
Gaspar bowed even lower than Balthasar and interrupted. "We bring gifts for the King of Heaven."
"Just a minute Joe, did he say gifts?" asked Mary.
"Very costly gifts," added Gaspar.
Another camel entered followed by Melchior who was about to prostrate himself before the manger but hesitated when he saw that the new combo flooring option had been further up-graded by the deposits of Gaspar's stallion. Contenting himself with an extravagant bow he intoned solemnly: "Great omens in the heavens have led us to this humble stable. Humble, yes, but blessed this night by a new Messiah and a virgin birth."
"They're absolutely barking," whispered the shepherd to Joseph.
"Yes, but rich, just look at that suit. You don't get whistles like that off the peg at Primark. I think we're on to something here," he whispered back.
Come let us market him
Gaspar reached into his saddlebag. "Long and hard have I sought this gift for the infant son of God." He produced a small bag bearing a logo something very like 'Herods'. "I'm afraid. . .the. . .um, wrapping paper has come off. . . hope you like it."
Mary opened the bag and removed a chain of finest golden-looking bling with a magnificent four-leaved clover inset with Swarovski crystals dangling from it. "Oh, it's lovely!" she gushed, "Look, Joe, baby Jesus wants to play with it!"
"Jesus?" asked Joe. "I thought we agreed to call him Bob?"
"Well it's too late now, isn't it?" hissed Mary. "That awful Chav receptionist has entered his name in the register."
Melchior stepped forward and presented his gift.
"Ohh. . .how. . .um. . .thoughtful," said Mary. "What exactly is it?"
"It's an incense burner with frankincense starter pack," said the futures trader. "Look, you set it up like this. . ."
Joseph looked over his shoulder and said. "Shouldn't that bit go in there?"
The shepherd joined them. "I had one of these once, there should be a bit like a small washer that goes in there. You haven't dropped something, have you?"
"Sorry. . ." apologised Balthasar. "Mince pies always do that to me."
The three men retired to a corner of the stable to assemble the burner in peace.
Balthasar advanced and placed his gift at Mary's feet. Pick it up", she said. "I've just given birth, I can't bend all the way down there." Balthasar handed her the gift.
"Oh. . .what an original. . .um. . .perfume," said Mary, holding the jar at arms length and wrinkling her nose.
"It's myrrh," said Balthasar smiling.
"What's it for?" asked Mary.
"Um. . .er. . .masking nasty smells. Very handy around the home with a new-born infant."
"Well, it's not doing a very good job then, is it? It smells like it came from a cat."
"Trees, actually," said Balthasar.
"Really? I'm sure you must have searched high and low for it," said Mary dropping it behind the manger. "Such an imaginative and unusual gift. . ."
Lit by the soft glow of an illuminated Santa high above the stable the animals, Gaspar and Balthasar gazed adoringly upon the mother and child. In a corner the shepherd, Joseph and Melchior played happily with the incense burner. Slowly, one by one, the sheep crept into the stable followed by more shepherds. High overhead the neon arrow flashed on and off. All was quiet; all was still. Then suddenly:
"Hold it right there. Nobody move," said a cheery cockney voice at the door. A stocky man in a baseball cap and anorak who bore an uncanny resemblance to a member of the paparazzi, bounced in. "Hold it just where you are luvvies." He whipped out a camera and began snapping away. "Hold the baby up a bit would y' love. . .you over there. . .yeah you. . .turn that ox a bit so the light catches its eyes. Yeah, spiffing, mate. . .cheers. Shepherds, can you all stand together over there. . .you look like rubberneckers on the M5 scattered all round the bleedin' stable. . .where's the proud Dad? Well put that down and come over here, squire. Yeah, that's right, near y' missus. Oi you three spivs in the funny 'ats——"
"——Futures traders if you don't mind," interrupted Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar in unison.
"Whatever. . ." said the journalist. "Just step back from the lamp a bit only I'm getting a lot of lens flare from your crowns. Oi mate, show some pride in your sprog. You're supposed to love 'is mum, not scowl at 'er. That's it, put your arm round 'er. No, love, not 'is cheek, give him a proper smacker on the lips. That's perfect. Hold it. . .hold it. . ."
Another five minutes of frantic snapping followed. "Okay, 'ere's the deal," said the journalist. "I keep the copyright for books, magazines, e-cards, YouTube vids, nativity scenes, holy statutes, exclusive interviews, etcetera—worldwide and in perpetuity, yeah? You get one colour print each to keep. Sound fair? Jolly good—sign 'ere an' 'ere, thanks. That's your copy, miss, er love. . .keep that an' you can get 'oly water at 'alf price during Passover."
As quickly as he had appeared the journalist vanished. Mary couldn't help feeling that something very, very special had just failed to happen. Far off a cock crowed three times. . . . .but that's part of an entirely different story. . . .
NOTE: If you have enjoyed this story you may also like the two other stories the author has written for us: The perils of Paganism—a wry look at the modern celebration of Christmas, and A modern Easter—a humorous retelling of the Bible story of the Last Supper.
© Copyright Gabrielle Annunziato & occult-mysteries.org. All rights reserved.
Published 4 December 2016.