Christmas is a message from the past, in the present and for the future. The future message is the big one.
The safe Christmas message is the one from the past: the life and retold words of a man of deep and long influence. That message is straightforward.
The easy Christmas message is the one in the present: the transitory comfort of presents and food and, mostly, the deeper comfort of company.
The challenging Christmas message is the one for the future: a child, symbol of hope and humanity.
The hope is the future for all of us which children embody. The humanity is in the truest gift-giving, the gift of a good life to children.
A child cannot claim the good life. Parents and carers and educators and community craft the good life for the child. In that lies the demanding message in Christmas: a child of one of us is a child of all of us.
Each tiny band at the dawn of humanity needed its children because they were the future.
As we settled into agriculture, then into cities, we separated into groups and families. The more distant families became from each other, the less were the children of one family the children of all families.
Thus, in the 1830s an English magistrate could deem it right and proper to sentence a child aged six years and seven months to one of the many brutal prison hulks as punishment for some “crime”. That child died there quickly. A third of all prisoners sent to the hulks died in them.
That same caste of Englishmen preached to savages and natives that Christianity was uplifting and liberating.
There is a caste of Muslims who would understand the Christian English judge and jailers and the politicians who made laws that criminalised children and, in effect, executed them. That caste of Muslims holds it right and proper that an eight-year-old Yemeni girl is sold into marriage and killed on the “wedding” night. That caste holds it right and proper to shoot an 11-year-old Pakistani girl in the face for going to school.
Jesus Christ, for whom Christmas is named, was said to have said: “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” In that five-century-old translation “suffer” meant “allow”, “permit”. He wanted them permitted to hear his message of inclusion and care.
But we are different now from those English judges and jailers and lawmakers. We are different from the Taliban and the mullahs. We are enlightened with the spirit of liberty and the integrity of the individual from birth to death.
Or are we?
In our small, enlightened society many tens of thousands of children go without some necessities or nourishing food or emotional security or guidance to learn.
Through the actions of mothers who eat badly and/or smoke, drink and take drugs before conception and during pregnancy and/or live with a violent man and/or then don’t or can’t get their children reading and counting and ready to be schooled, many of those children are in effect imprisoned, not in a hulk but in the lesser persons they become compared with what they might have been. Many are imprisoned in drugs, mental illness, delinquency and crime.
Well, that’s just bad parents, isn’t it? None of our business. Our job is to bring up our kids right, not interfere in others’ private affairs, isn’t it? Isn’t that individual liberty?
The parliamentary health committee disagrees. A report in November, chaired by National MP Paul Hutchison and signed by all 10 MPs on the committee — five National, three Labour, one Green and one New Zealand First — focused on the needs and opportunities of the child and proposed many interventions to get parents ready and fit and get children a good start.
That report, the most important parliamentary report in a long time, essentially said the country should frame policy and then make social investments on the presumption that a child of one of us is a child of all of us and that no child deserves a bad start.
That is a simple economic calculation: a child who can get educated and is emotionally stable will join the workforce, pay taxes, take a full part in society and bring up children who do the same in turn.
It is also a calculation of social cohesion: the more numerous the children who grow up feeling they are fully part of society, the stronger, and probably richer, that society will be.
That notion of social cohesion runs through all three Christmas messages: the enduring past message of a man of good actions and words aimed at uniting, not separating; the positive present message of true gift-giving to improve life, not just add to the stack of material goods; and the message of hope for a good future, symbolised in a child whom wise men travelled to venerate and value.
The strongest of those messages — though devilishly complex and difficult for an atomised modern society of liberty to turn into policy and then action — is the third.
So what is the Christmas story? Children’s life-chances are our future. What we make of children we make of ourselves.