Nick’s Christmas message

From our Christmas Day Celebration…

I would like to split my address into two parts the first, being very trendy and slightly flippant, concerning ‘fake news’ the second part will tackle the truth.

As some of you will know I am a prolific author. I have not been brave enough to actually visit the publisher as I suffer from a fear of rejection, no doubt if you place me a psychiatrist’s couch, due to some childhood trauma. however I have written a book I have called ‘Fungi  Fun’ and it is a section of this I wish to delve into first.

Laplanders herd wild reindeer from one end of Lapland to another, presumably depending on feeding grounds that are covered in the least amount of snow. The herders camp at night, have breakfast in the morning and find it a right nuisance when the reindeer have wandered off and the men have to spend all morning retrieving them before they can set off on their trek. An astute Lapp herder noticed that reindeer are very attracted to the fly agaric mushrooms, otherwise known by its Latin name: Amanita muscaria.  This is the one illustrated in all fairytale books, a red specimen with white spots. It grows prolifically in Scotland and northern parts of the northern hemisphere. When a reindeer eats a fly agaric mushroom, its brain goes off into other realms as the fungi has hallucinogenic toxins. The animal stays stationary during these episodes and as a result the herders pick the mushrooms in autumn, dry them and then scatter them amongst the reindeer in the evening thus preventing them from wandering off. An inquisitive young man watched the reindeer getting intoxicated and thought it would be a good idea to have a go himself. The result was that he became high and also very sick so he thought he would be even cleverer and try drinking the animals pee, using its kidneys to filter out the toxins and leaving the drug pure. It was discovered that the older men, who had been doing this for years, had built up a resistance to the toxins and that if the young men drank their pee they weren’t sick and all was well. Don’t try this at home children.

Well, I probably won’t be asked again to address you as I can see David frowning severely at me. It was just a preamble to explaining to you about how flying reindeer came into existence. If you were a high Laplander or Sami, herding reindeer across the vast wastes of the northern hemisphere what would you see? Yes. Flying reindeer – a subject on many a Christmas card with himself at the reins careering through the night sky.

If you wish to see an example of all this, have a look at Catherine’s Christmas jumper. (Catherine was wearing a very cheerful Christmas, red and white jersey with a reindeer motif. Very appropriate for my address).

If you are a French child you don’t write request lists to Father Christmas and put them up the chimney. You pray to Saint Nicolas who was the original protector of children. Incidentally, as I was named after him, I am also grateful to him for being the patron saint of boats so what with children and boats he is a busy Saint.

In the Middle Ages the green man on his green horse in the green wood came on the scene. A rather malevolent character who didn’t really inspire much joy in children’s lives. In fact he was a menacing creature and to balance him out the people chose Christmas as a time for feasting as opposed to French children who chose Easter. 

The green man gradually became more amenable and I understand it was the Coca-Cola advertising department that changed the colour of his clothes to the normal red and white. We are now back to the fly agaric mushroom. No. Let’s not go there.

Now we come to the second section of my address. The Truth. As some of you may have gathered, I am a prolific but modest author. I have written another book called ‘Oh Dad Shut Up!’ -copies of which can be ordered outside the church after the service. It tells the story of my travels from 1965 to 1967 when I was aged 17 to 20. One of the stories details the time when I was hitchhiking in Lapland in late September when the snowdrifts were many metres high and not many sensible people were travelling on the same road as me. I got dropped off at a small crossroads in the middle of nowhere in the late afternoon and was abandoned at the side of the road. I started to feel rather forlorn and as the afternoon became evening, then dusk and no sign of a car coming along the road, I walked towards the glimmer of light which turned out to be a house which had previously been hidden from sight. With great trepidation I knocked on its door. I was greeted by the family that lived there like their long lost son. As Sami or Finnish is not one of my languages and their English wasn’t great we communicated in the age old method of smiling at one’s new friends. I was taken to a hut in the garden and shown the joys of the sauna as presumably the family had decided that a hot bath was needed to cleanse me after the effects of travel to get to them. After a very quick dip in the local stream accompanied by a lot of screaming on my behalf, I was given a hot meal, probably reindeer or moose soup and a glorious bed. After breakfast of delicious ghetost goats cheese and strawberry jam, I set off for the road again. Not a single car came. I was given a fishing rod by the son of the house and he stayed on the road ready to stop a car whilst I fished in the stream. It wasn’t until after another night of hospitality did I eventually get a lift North toward Hammerfest.

‘Oh Dad Shut Up!’ Continues to reveal numerous similar incidents throughout my travels in over 32 countries, and examples of the generosity of mankind. I was on a motorbike in Lebanon and walked into a café which sold nothing but hummus and tea. The hummus was in a big clay pot by the door, and the serving was measured by the owners hand. Fortunately he had a large hand. One of the café’s occupants spoke very good English and asked me where I had come from and a conversation ensued. He insisted I came with him to meet his family, inspect his Orange Grove and ended up being given supper, his bed, his mosquito net and an offer of his pyjamas which I courteously refused. He went off to sleep under an orange tree. I was waved off in the morning by his entire family and set off on the road, refreshed and ready for the next part of the adventure. 

The kindness of people offering hospitality to strangers is something worldwide. I presume it is based on a basic survival mechanism. It is written in the tomes of various religions. I am grateful to David for assisting me with quotes from the Bible.

In Deuteronomy we discover that “God administers justice for the fatherless and the widow and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

In Kings we find the story of Elijah being given hospitality by a widow who was on the verge of starvation – her pantry was all but empty – but she gave her visitor the first small cake from the last flour and oil. The oil and flour bin then miraculously do not run out while Elijah stays on for many days thereafter.

In the letter to the Hebrews, as the writer starts his conclusion, he begins: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have  unwittingly entertained angels”. You would feel awful, wouldn’t you if you discovered that the person you had just turned away was really an angel in disguise. Mistake! Big mistake!

I myself was rescued by Bedouins in a Jordanian desert when I went to visit the valley where Lawrence of Arabia gathered his camel mounted attack on Aqaba amongst the beautiful scenery of the Wadi Rum. I was walking along a temporary road out to the fort in the Wadi. I was going to stay the night there in order to witness the dawn light shining on the local multicoloured cliffs. The director of the film “Lawrence of Arabia” had thought the spectacular cliffs should be the background to this scene. Unfortunately for me, I got my timings completely wrong, the relentless sun and heat got the better of me and I poured what water I had with me over my head, which was fruitless, as I was just as hot a minute later with no water. A small boy popped out from behind a large rock and invited me to his parents’ hidden camp close nearby. It is a Bedouin tradition that you are looked after until it is safe for you to continue your journey and this they did.

There is a marvellous book ‘The Places Inbetween’ by Rory Stewart, a British soldier, who after fighting in the Afghan war, went back in relative peacetime and travelled across Afghanistan on foot, accompanied by an itinerant and toothless dog he came across.  Every evening he would arrive in a remote mountain village and was tended to by the headman of the village.  The following morning he would be escorted towards his next stop, another remote village.  At the pinnacle of a hill, his guide would point towards a spot in the far distance. When Rory asked his companion whether he would like to accompany him there he would be told that he didn’t know the route as he had never travelled it. Preumably these Afghan villagers keep themselves to themselves.

Rory dedicated the book to the people of Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal who I quote: “showed me the way, fed me, protected me, housed me and made this walk possible.  They were not all Saints, though some of them were. A number were greedy, idle, stupid, hypocritical, insensitive, mendacious, ignorant and cruel. Some of them have robbed or killed others; many of them threatened me and begged from me. But never in my 21 months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me. I was alone and a stranger, walking in very remote areas; I represented a culture that many of them hated and I was carrying enough money to save or at least transform their lives. In more than 500 village houses I was indulged, fed, nursed and protected by people poorer, hungrier, sicker and more vulnerable than myself. Almost every group I met: Sunni Kurds, Shia Hazara, Punjabi Christians, Sikhs, Brahmins of Kedernath,  Garwhal Dalits  and Newark Buddhists gave me hospitality without any thought of reward”.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in his marvellous travel writings, especially in his book ‘A Time of Gifts’ tells us of numerous occasions when he was invited into people’s houses on his travels. I quote from Artemis Cooper’s biography of him. ‘Paddy came across kindness and generosity wherever he went, despite the harshness of the times. It had something to do with the word ‘student’ written in his passport and which he used to describe himself. The word was evocative of the wandering scholars who had been a feature of European life since the 12th century as they walked from one university town or monastery to the next in pursuit of knowledge’.

I quote from a page in ‘A Time of Gifts’: Remembering the advice of the mayor of Bruchsal had given me, the moment I arrived in this little village, I had sought out the Burger Meister. I found him in the Gemeindeamt, where he filled out a slip of paper. I presented it at the inn: it entitled me to supper and a mug of beer, a bed for the night and bread and a bowl of coffee in the morning; all on the parish. It seems amazing to me now, but so it was, and there was no kind of slur attached to it; nothing, ever, but a friendly welcome. I wonder how many times I took advantage of this generous and apparently very old custom? It prevailed all through Germany and Austria, a survival perhaps, of some ancient charity to wandering students and pilgrims, extended now to all poor travellers. 

So it is no wonder that when Mary and Joseph were looking for accommodation in Bethlehem and there was no room in the Inn, the innkeeper made his best efforts and offered them shelter in his stable. This kind act was in the finest tradition of providing shelter for travellers.

We live in an unstable world and the only hope for our salvation is hope itself together with the necessity of actually acting in a sensible way. We can only wish that tradition of offering hospitality to strangers is not swamped by the cruelties of war, famine and forced immigration.

RThis afternoon the Queen will be giving her festive message. Her Majesty will be saying that the Christian message of ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All’ is needed as ‘much as ever’.

So if you hear a knock on your front door late at night and it turns out to be a Mexican, Syrian or Iranian refugee family, you will have to decide, on the spot, what you are going to offer them.

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