The things she knew, let her forget again-
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.
Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.
Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.
Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.
It seems ironic to me that during the month that most Christians and many others are in fever pitch celebration mode for Christmas, so little attention is paid to the central action in this mythical story. There is said to have been a birth.
Unlike in the era of the myth, many fewer of these births are among teen mothers. Still, about 250,000 babies are born to teens in the U.S. each year. About one in eight of these teen births is the result of rape. Amazing efforts have been made in Milwaukee and elsewhere to drive down the percentage of births to teens among the nearly 4,000,000 births in the U.S. each year.
I was raised in a Catholic household near a Catholic Church during a period when both the romance and the horrors of Bible stories were drilled into little children. The mysteries of the terrifying annunciation, the lonely, unsanitary nativity, and confusing visitation of kings were as fascinating to us as the detailed accounts of fleeing Herod, gory circumcision, and infanticide.
But even those stories didn’t prepare us for the realities of today. By accounts from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – accounts disputed by other experts because they are viewed as far too conservative estimates – 18% of these newborns will be maltreated in their childhood. 700,000 of those sweet children that are celebrated each winter will suffer neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological maltreatment, medical neglect, and abandonment.
As in the holiday myth, the horrors of childhood – while not unique to any one group – are still highly concentrated among people who are poor, vulnerable, and living in unsafe circumstances. We have learned over time that both the victims and perpetrators of child abuse share the risks and consequences associated with intimate partner violence, sexual violence, gang violence, and child maltreatment. For example, youth with histories of abuse and neglect, teens who are homeless, and others searching for a better life are more likely to be exploited by sex traffickers. The perpetrators of this trafficking often come from the same circumstances.
There are also each week the thousands of parents of Black and Brown children, particularly parents of boys, who must warn them of the need to manage the rage of those who are designated to keep the peace. They teach their children to have subdued responses to unreasonable stops and searches, caution them even to keep their hands visible, their tone modulated, their eyes averted.
It seems to me that messages of this holiday’s myth have been wiped clean through commercial gain. There is no attention paid to the straw bed, the barn yard and dung, or the auditory and visual hallucinations. Who attends to the humiliation, terror, fatigue, regret, forced evacuation, or military incursion?
Then. Or now.