A modernised retelling of the Christmas story, given as an after dinner speech to Worksop Rotary.
Have you ever wondered how the Christmas story would sound if it was completely updated? Jesus as the son of a teenage mother in Gateshead, whose builder boyfriend decides to stick with her even though the baby isn’t his. A new Government tax process forces them to travel down to some small village in Suffolk, because that’s where he was born. Only by this point she’s pretty close to her due date. It’s the worst possible time to be trying to make a journey like that, he’s only got his white van to drive in, and it’s not got great suspension. To make matters worse, everyone else has to go to their place of birth too, so the roads are just diabolical. It takes days to make the journey, with her getting anxious about the baby coming all the way. They’ve got her maternity notes with them, but Joseph hasn’t a clue where the nearest hospital would be if she does go into labour, and he’s worrying, though trying not to show it, so he’s snapping at her as they go. He’s not exactly thrilled about the whole not-your-baby thing anyway, so the fact that this child is causing him yet more grief even before its born is not endearing it to him.
When they finally arrive in Bethlehem, Suffolk, they discover that not only is it a smaller place than they’d imagined, but that both pubs, the Travelodge down the road and all the B&Bs have all been taken by other people. Right then, sitting in the pub carpark, when Joseph is starting to get the road atlas out and figure out where else they could try that might have places to stay and would still leave them within striking distance of Bethlehem, Mary announces that her waters have broken and she’s in labour. The baby is coming now. So now Joseph really starts to panic. His girlfriend is in labour in the back of his van, he hasn’t got a clue where the nearest hospital is, whether they’d make it there if he tried, and he can’t get a signal on his mobile because Bethlehem, Suffolk has really poor coverage. Which is when the landlord comes out with a baseball bat to find out what all the screaming in his carpark is about. Once Joseph has convinced him that his girlfriend is screaming because she’s having a baby and not because he beat her up, which is harder than you might think because he’s got a pretty broad Geordie accent and he’s a skinhead white-van man who’s built like the proverbial brick outhouse – anyway, once he’s convinced him that Mary’s having a baby, the landlord takes pity on him. He’s got no rooms spare in the pub, and she can’t give birth in any of the public rooms – ‘health and safety, mate – can’t have girls popping babies out in the toilets’, but he does have a garage round the back with an old sofa in it.
Meanwhile, out on the industrial estate on the outskirts of Bethlehem, there’s a bunch of security guards playing cards in the control room. Dave, the shift supervisor, is dealing, Steve holds cards with one eye on the monitors, Gary is passing the teas round, and Matt is busy texting his girlfriend with one hand. Suddenly there’s a flash like a flare going off on the monitors and they all turn to static. Gary almost drops the mugs. Steve curses, drops his cards and starts switching between cameras to try and find a working one. Dave gets to his feet and grabs his coat and torch. He rounds the others up, and they all trudge out to try and figure out what’s going on, Matt still texting as they go. It’s only when they get outside that they hear the singing. Not drunk kids larking about, or some car with its stereo turned up too loud, but proper singing – a choir, a really big choir, but somehow higher and deeper than anything they’ve ever heard before. And they can’t quite make out the words, though they know exactly what it’s about. Hopes fulfilled, boundless gratitude, and a pure, deep joy. Only they can’t see where it’s coming from. A song as loud as a pop concert, but no singers to be seen. This is just plain weird now, and they walk around the warehouses shining their torches into every corner getting more and more uneasy. Matt tells his girlfriend he’ll call her later and puts the phone away. Dave is about to call the boss when the singing stops. It’s completely silent. And that’s when they see the man. Just one man, walking towards them. Afterwards they can’t remember what he was wearing or what he looked like, but they all say he wasn’t an ordinary man. There was something about him, something powerful, almost dangerous. They can’t take their eyes off him. Turning and running isn’t an option. So they stand there, rooted to the spot as he gets close enough to look them in the eye.
“Don’t be afraid.” He says “I have a message for you from God. A baby has been born, about thirty seconds ago, in Bethlehem. He’s going to save the world. You’ll find him wrapped in an old dog-blanket on a broken sofa in the garage at the back of the Dog and Whistle.”
And suddenly he’s not alone, and it’s no longer silent. The warehouses, car parks, alleyways, everywhere is suddenly full of people singing. They’re surrounded, the song rolling over them, loud enough to deafen them. For five heartbeats, maybe six they stand there surrounded by this vast choir singing at the top of their lungs. And then they vanish. And it’s Dave, Gary, Steve and Matt standing there alone and the only sound is their breathing. They look at each other, questions racing through their head. Truth be told they had never had a conversation about religion. Steve had said he was getting the kiddie christened, but the rest of them had never been near a church, not except for funerals. So when it came to messages from God, well… 5 minutes ago Dave would have said he didn’t believe in God. They looked at each other, no-one wanting to be the first to speak, the first to say what he thought. Finally, Dave cleared his throat.
“Right.” He said. “We going to the Dog and Whistle then, see if we can find this baby?”
The garage at the Dog and Whistle is quiet. After Mary had the baby, the landlord fished out an old blanket from somewhere to wrap him in. Joseph is trying to figure out how they were going to get her and the baby to the hospital when a car roars into the carpark and four guys dressed in some sort of security uniform bundle out. They look around, but pretty quickly zero in on the garage and they’re coming over with torches, looking suspicious. Suddenly Joseph is a bit worried, and he walks out to meet them.
“Alright lads, what’s going on?” He asks.
“We’ve come to see the baby” says Dave, “the man said he was here.”
Suddenly they spot Mary and the baby on the sofa, and they look completely awestruck. They’d never really been sure what they’d find. As Dave is explaining about the man and the singing and how they got there, there is whirring sound and a helicopter lands in the middle of the car park. Three very well-dressed men get out. It turns out they’re scientists from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. They’re from all over the world, one is Swedish, one Chinese, the other one from South Africa. All speak perfect English. They say they’ve come because they detected some sort of alignment of sub-atomic particles that led them to the birth of a baby in the garage of the Dog and Biscuit in Bethlehem. Joseph doesn’t have a clue what they mean, and to be honest it seems like they’re not exactly sure themselves, but they do say that this baby is very special. In fact, they’re concerned that if certain unscrupulous people find out about the child then he could be in danger – some scientists might feel they needed to keep him in a lab under constant observation. They haven’t told anyone about it and they never will, but they have brought gifts. One set up a small trust fund for the baby (not millions, but enough to make sure they’re ok), another brought a nicely bound set of the world’s greatest religious scriptures (Joseph isn’t sure what to make of these, to be honest, he’s not much of a reader, but he’s sure they mean well), and the Swede brought a bottle of embalming fluid. Now Joseph really isn’t sure what to make of that, and the Swede wouldn’t say why he thought it was an appropriate gift for a baby, but he looked sad.
And then they are all gone. The scientists get back in the helicopter and fly off. Dave and the security guards drive back to the industrial estate before anyone spots they’ve left their control room. Dave had left Joseph directions to the hospital before he went, and told him which way to go to get out of the mobile blackspot. And then they are alone again.
“What just happened?” asks Joseph.
And Mary says nothing. She just smiles, and knows, just as she had known all along, that her baby is going to be something very special.
What difference does it make, to hear the story like that? Sometimes I think we make the Christmas story a bit too chocolate-box, a bit too easy listening. Something we can listen to and feel comforted, or nostalgic. It’s not that sort of story, really. It’s supposed to disturb us. It’s supposed to make us ask ‘who is this child, and what does he mean to me?’
So as you listen to carols and give presents, watch Christmas specials on the telly and clear away wrapping paper, remember the Geordie chippy having the worst night of his life, the night shift at the industrial estate having a close encounter with something not of this world, and the smartest men on the planet travelling hundreds of miles to see a newborn baby they thought could change everything. And have a very Happy Christmas.