This time of year is all about the stories. We’re starting to think about family get-togethers, foods that come out for our special festivals, ghosts of festivals past…
Do you remember the time that Grandmother took several glasses too many of the Christmas wine and danced the cancan till her hip gave out?
Don’t let Matthew near the barbecue: not after what happened two years ago.
Let the children sleep all tumbled together in the same room, same as we used to do when we were kids.
Our shared histories define us as individuals, families, friendship groups, and communities. My Masters thesis was based on narrative theory: the concept that we use pieces of story to strengthen bonds within a group — a few words or a couple of sentence that remind members of the group of their shared history, while meaning nothing to outsiders. As a storyteller from way back, I loved using this theory to measure the strength of a group.
My New Zealand culture is bound together (and sometimes split apart) by stories from English history and more recently New Zealand history, fairy tales from the whole of Europe and from Maori legend, and stories from a Judeo-Christian past that many today barely remember, except in glancing references to the Prodigal Son, Jonah and the Whale, and Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
We celebrate the little fellow in the black singlet and gumboots who uses ingenuity and a can-do attitude to make a difference. Our national heroes and heroines are self-effacing, determined, and surprisingly successful, just like in the stories we tell one another.
Other countries have their own stories. The self-made man (or, more rarely, woman). The titled hero. The revolutionary. The working-class slum-dweller who rises to the top. The flamboyant artist. The lonely hero who saves the world but can’t save himself (this one is almost always a male).
On the first Sunday in Advent each year, I put up my Jesse Tree — and this year I finally threw out the old artificial Christmas tree I’d been using and found a dead tree I could paint silver to represent the ‘branch that grew from the root of Jesse’, as the story goes.
The Jesse Tree is a way of remembering the stories that make up Jesus’s whakapapa, his family history. Each day, we add a symbol. Day one is the tree. Day two is the star that represents the creation of the heavens and the earth. Day three is the apple, day 4 Noah’s ark and the rainbow, and day 5 a field of stars.
Do those story-fragments ring a bell? If so, your group and mine intersect in the days leading up to the Christian festival.
Whether or not Christmas is a Christian festival for you, please accept my fondest wishes for you, your family and your friends this coming holiday season. May all your stories have happy endings.