Christmas Eve ~ Talking Turkey at Christmas
So it’s Christmas again: Time to talk turkey. And I don’t mean, ‘gobble gobble’. Why do we say ‘gobble gobble’? It’s not the noise turkeys make, but rather what we do to them.
We gobble them up, and we’ve been doing so since 1519, when they were first introduced to Spain, and have fanned out from there. But actually they’ve been around for ten million years – that’s nine million years longer than us. They are certainly a primitive bird, which partly explains how they came to be so popular in Europe – the Spanish in America soon discovered that they tended not to run away, and could be bred, culled and cooked relatively easily. The Aztecs used to cook them with chocolate sauce laced with chilli, and Mexicans still do.
We kill at least 10 million turkeys each year, and eat 19,000 tonnes of turkey meat. Nowadays two-thirds of those are frozen turkeys, but in the past, before roads and rail, they mostly came from Norfolk and had to be walked to market in London. It was about a hundred miles and it took a week. And because turkeys - especially fattened ones, aren’t designed to walk long distances, the farmers had to make them little boots to wear. The same was true for geese, but they tended to have their feet dipped in tar instead. Incidentally, since 1588 it has been illegal to eat turkey on Christmas Day: in that year Elizabeth I enacted a law, insisting that folk should eat goose as she had done to celebrate the victory over the Spanish Armada.
So it would seem that there is a lot of law breaking at Christmas, apart from what we hear about on the news. And be warned, since 1541, playing football, and since 1551, coming to church by any other means than walking on Christmas Day are also illegal.
The Norfolk turkeys of course had done their walking by Christmas Day. But we’ve had enough of talking about turkeys I daresay.
The phrase, ‘talking turkey’ as perhaps you know, is an American one, which broadly means, to talk seriously with a view to resolving an issue. Various suggestions are out there as to how the phrase came into being; a prosaic one says that it simply refers to the family meal gathered around the Thanksgiving Day turkey. Another, more elaborate tradition concerns native Americans – who after the so called ‘discovery’ of America, found themselves constantly in negotiations with settlers who came to poach, steal, or otherwise purloin the indigenous birds. ‘You come to talk turkey’ seems to be the phrase that sums up the rather unbalanced relationships that arose between settlers and natives. Talking turkey was there and then, literally, about discussing turkeys, but it was a tricky business. A variant on this tells of a settler and a native American who went hunting together, and having caught four turkeys and for crows, the settler tried to fob the native off with the four crows. Responding to the attempted injustice, the native told the settler that he wanted to hear him talk turkey, rather than crows. Either way, talking turkey is about talking seriously, fairly, squarely, honestly, with a view to reaching truth or agreement. And while it may be done in a robust, even uncompromising way, it is also to be done in a generous, accommodating, open-minded way.
So, Christmas is a very good time to talk turkey.
Because stuffed inside those festive birds, are some uncompromising truths that need to be stated in a robust yet generous ways. There are some interesting facts about Christmas to get straight, and there are some misconceptions that one might clear up.
Jesus was most probably born in 6 BC. He was not born in an inn, nor in a guest room in the family home. Rather it is far more likely that Joseph – who was not a carpenter but builder - who turned up for the census in his ancestral home town, to find that the guest rooms were taken, and that, since Mary was about to give birth, the menfolk would have been turned out of the family room, in which it was customary to have a feeding trough built into the floor, because the animals were kept on a level slightly lower down. The birthplace was not an inn nor a stable, both of which have Greek words that Luke does not use in his gospel – rather he uses the word for ‘guest room’ and says it was not available. To me, this does not rubbish the story as we might think of it, but makes it sound more authentic.
Similarly, the three Kings: They weren’t Kings, and there weren’t three of them. You’ll see – or you would be able to see if the lights were on - on the beautifully restored walls behind me, on the right hand side, the three Magi – the three wise men for want of a better word, although ‘astrologers’ would be even better. They came from Persia and were quite possibly followers of the Zoarastrian religion, now almost completely defunct. Matthew tells us in his gospel that they brought three gifts, but does not tell us that there were three of them, any more than he tells us Mary rode on a donkey. It was the theologian Origen, in the third century, who made the assumption that three gifts meant three givers – hence three wise men, or even three kings. He was undoubtedly feeling especially Trinitarian too – one gift and one giver for each of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A nice but spurious idea. But again, this does not discredit the story of the Magi: rather it gives them flesh and blood and a distinctly plausible purpose as stargazers who witnessed an unusual conjunction of stars or planets and followed it only to discover that ancient Jewish prophecies predicted a sacred, kingly birth in Bethlehem.
So if we are talking turkey about Christmas, we must be realistic and honest, not only about the story as the Bible presents it, but also about the gloss that has been put on it over the years, and most importantly, about the recent trend to treat what the Bible tells us as historically inaccurate, fictitious propaganda. It has become the received wisdom of the past few decades that the Bible is untrustworthy, not because, as is the case, the main characters, such as shepherds, women and fishermen were perceived as untrustworthy in their own time, but because the human race has become increasingly arrogant, know-all and presumptive about what is and isn’t, what could or could not be.
We might rather consider that the very fact that the central characters in the Christian story are unreliable witnesses in their own culture, does not in fact discredit them, but rather adds an authenticity to their testimony and existence. For it is a foolish and risky author who seeks to invent a legend by placing the salient events and corroborating evidence in the hands and mouths of reprobates like shepherds, weirdos like Persian astrologers and moral degenerates like unmarried mothers. And yet, that is what we have. It has a ring of truth to it because it doesn’t involve the right people. A very similar thing could be said about the Easter stories too.
And that ring of truth is still sounding loud and clear, cutting through the ‘gobble gobble’ of ten million turkeys. For we are not like turkeys, waddling and gobbling all the way to our doom. No, far from it, we are the ones for whom Christ was born to die, the ones saved by divine, incarnational love.
Talking turkey is all about cutting through the nonsense and telling the truth. And the truth sent from above, is that God our creator took human flesh and was born among us to live and die and rise again, to show us that there is a heaven, and there is a God, and that there is an eternal hope of resurrection life to which each and every one of us is called. And all we have to do is shake hands on the deal – shake hands with those baby hands in the crib; shake hands with those nailed to the cross. For they are two and the same hands, outstretched to us with both vulnerability and strength, and most of all, with love. So may it be our joy this Christmas, to take those hands of love, and be led by them into the light of hope and peace and goodwill.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 24/12/12