Cheers to Christmas drinks

The biblical proportions of wine bottles… and toy donkeys

I do love the excuse to enjoy sparkling burgundy at Christmas. It’s such a delicious “kid’s drink for adults”, and suits the sense of festivity that Christmas should bring us. If I could find a Melchizedek of it, I’d be delighted.

Keh?, you say. Come again? Have you imbibed too much of the stuff? No, ‘Melchizedek’ is the name for a rare (thankfully) 30-litre bottle of wine.

When your bottles get bigger than a magnum (a wine term most people know), the larger sizes are described using names from the Bible. They are named after the kings of Israel recorded in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the ‘Old Testament’): Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Methusaleh, Shalmanazar.

As the bottles grow, the names seem to get harder to pronounce. Balthazar, Nebuchadnezzar, Melchizedek. There’s a Goliath in there, too.

A weird thing to be doing, if it were not for having the Bible in our veins.

How did this come to be? No one really knows, but there are some agreeable guesses going around. For example, the six-litre Methusaleh might have been given that name because it could age for a very long time in the bottle, just like the venerable old man of the Bible who is said to have lived to 969 years old. (Genesis 5:27)

Whatever the actual reason that wine bottles are named like that, it is another example of how the rich and complex stories of the Bible have seeped into our culture. They run through our veins like the wines we are talking about, even when people don’t know anything about the characters or stories to which they refer.

Christmas is always a bit like this in Australia: people who have never attended church find themselves singing “with the angelic hosts proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’”, a somewhat weird thing to be doing were it not for the Bible in our veins.

That’s when Christmas lifts to a new level…

Families will be assembling toy donkeys, camels and wise-looking men wearing robes on their mantlepieces at home, having some vague idea that this is about religion, but knowing nothing about the nativity accounts recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

I like the way Christianity lingers in the December experience of every Australian. I’d be really sad to see it go. But I do know that it is only on the periphery for many people, in the name of a wine bottle or a display of animals and a baby on a lounge-room shelf.

It would be so much more satisfying if the deeper meaning of Christmas could surface along with the residual biblical traces. To be confronted with the idea that God became human in the person of Jesus, with all of its profound implications, is to really experience Christmas cheer. To sing ‘veil’d in flesh the Godhead see’ and really be struck by what is being claimed there. God with us, God in a form we get, God humbly human.

That’s when Christmas lifts to a new level, and that’s a better reason than any to crack open a Methusaleh and give thanks with friends and family this year.

Greg Clarke is the Group Chief Executive Officer of Bible Society Australia and author of The Great Bible Swindle.

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The Great Bible Swindle

Greg Clarke

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