Happy Boxing Day!
On this second day of Christmas, tradition invites us to share our excess abundance with those less fortunate. As we emerge from our tryptophan-induced stupor, I think it’s a good one to honor.
Aside from the Western Christian calendar, there are other celebrations held during this time of year, some religious and some secular. To name just a few:
Hanukkah (Festival of Lights – Jewish)
Kwanzaa (African American)
Day of Enlightenment (Buddhist)
Lunar New Year (China, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, Japan – changeable date)
Orthodox Christmas (January 7)
Each of these festivals comes complete with its own traditions. In some cases, the shape of those traditions may have changed over the years in response to geopolitical or other influences.
So let’s take a look at how translation and contextual understanding – or the misapplication thereof – might contribute to shaping these traditions that are near and dear to our hearts.
Allow me to draw on the traditions of my own faith and a story that many of us have just finished celebrating. You know the story: the one where the Holy Family takes shelter in the barn of an overflowing hotel, where the infant Jesus is born before the curious gaze of a few sheep and a cow or two, shut out in the silence of a world too busy to receive him.
But what happens when we take a closer look?
First, we find a bit of mistranslation. The word used in the original New Testament Greek is kataluma, meaning a lodging place or extra room. The same word is later used to describe the place where the Last Supper was held. Early translators, however, matched “lodging place” with “travelers” and jumped to the wrong conclusion.
Second, there’s some cultural misunderstanding. In that region of the world, especially in that time period, failure to extend hospitality to the travelers would have brought crushing shame on the household of anyone who refused to open their doors.
And third, there’s a lack of proper context. The typical Palestinian peasant home of that time consisted of a single space, under a single roof, subdivided into the people section and the animal section. The animal section of the house was built slightly lower, and housed the family’s livestock during the night. The people section was where the family cooked, ate, slept, lived. Then, if the family was able, they might have an extra space: either an attached spare room, or an open room on the roof. This extra space could be used for extended family, rented to travelers, used for storage, etc. And this extra space is what is referred to by the Greek term kataluma.
So if our early translators had had access to Google, Bing and Wikipedia, our modern-day crèches might more accurately show the Holy Family surrounded by people and the noise of daily living, esconced in the livestock portion of a family home because there was no room left in the kataluma.
As we close out an eventful 2016 and prepare for the coming year, let us give thanks for the resources we have at our fingertips today. And for the sake of future traditions, let us resolve to use those resources faithfully.
Best wishes to all, and may 2017 be a wonderful year!
-Carol Shaw, MITA editor
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