“Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it’s absolutely shocking.” Even our ever-surprising pontiff almost certainly isn’t familiar with the Goodies’ 1976 novelty record Make a Daft Noise for Christmas, but his Christmas homily nevertheless brought those lyrics to my mind. (This may, I admit, say rather more about my mind than about the Miracle of the Incarnation.) Bill Oddie probably didn’t intend too much profundity in his song (I haven’t asked), but the “shock” of Christmas was very much the Pope’s theme at Midnight Mass in St Peter’s. He focused, with Franciscan peculiarity, on the manger, and St Luke’s repeated assertion that the Christ Child was placed in it – something that “presents us with a scene that is striking, even crude”. The manger captures the “vicinanza, povertà e concretezza” of the Nativity, its “closeness, poverty and” – as the Vatican insistently translates it – “concreteness”. Others bemused by the Holy See’s repeated references to the popular building material in its press may be glad to learn that the Italian for “concrete” is calcestruzzo; concretezza, on the other hand, means something more like “practical reality”. The point of the manger, said Francis, is that it practically, really shows that the Word was made flesh: he rested in that trough over there, where we normally feed the cows, and dwelt among us. “As a result, all our theories, our fine thoughts and our pious sentiments are no longer enough.” We need reminders of Christmas’s oddness. In December, a lengthy squabble over whether Dublin would feature a crib with live farm animals brought some much-needed attention to the agricultural element of the Nativity story. I met an old friend in a village pub packed to the gunwales on Christmas Eve – somebody astutely remarked on how awkward it would be to deliver a baby in the smoking shelter that evening. Another treasured oddity at home is our parish priest’s passion for crib-building: this year’s spans the altar steps, with walls of wood and stone and a smallholding’s worth of straw. When he was an army chaplain, he employed squaddies in his constructions – concrete may have been involved. However you have celebrated and continue to celebrate the festive season, I hope it is merry and – in the very best sense – shocking.