Comment: On the politics of Christmas

Mary was a teenage mother, living with a man who is not the father of her child, homeless and seeking asylum – it's enough to have a Daily Mail leader writer salivating in anticipation!

By Stephen R. Holmes

The Politics of Christmas might sound like an oxymoron; in fact it is the title of a report I wrote for the public theology think tank Theos that was published a few days ago. We started with a ComRes poll, which told us that people in Britain overwhelmingly agree (83%) that 'Christmas is about spending time with family and friends' and overwhelmingly disagree (19%) that 'Christmas is a time when we should challenge political oppression around the world'.

It is not news, I suppose, that we stop doing politics at Christmas; it is the one day in the year when the partisan debate falls silent, when no points are scored, no rebuttals published, no policies proposed.

In my report for Theos, I asked two questions: why don't we do politics at Christmas? and, should we? The answer to the first is fairly easy. Our contemporary Christmas traditions are largely a Victorian creation; back in 1800 Christmas was ignored in many places, and where it was celebrated it was a 'season of misrule,' when normal patterns of social order were inverted (the tradition, still current in the British army, of officers serving men in the mess on Christmas Day is an echo of this older celebration). There was a remarkably creative focus on Christmas in the 1840s: in 1841, Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree; in 1843, the first Christmas card was printed and sold; also in 1843, Dickens published A Christmas Carol.

In that period, Christmas was re-invented as a festival celebrating the security and permanence of the nuclear family. That first Christmas card showed a family feast; Dickens ended his novella with the Cratchits around the table. The world was changing at a rapid pace: industrialisation and urbanisation were transforming patterns of sociality rapidly and radically. The new Christmas was a chance to shut the door on all of this, and luxuriate in the allegedly-unchanging joys of family life. Personal charity was allowed, indeed encouraged; Scrooge might and should give gifts to the Cratchits; but any properly political debate was shut out. Scrooge never thought to ask why Tiny Tim was condemned to a precarious existence dependent on the gifts of strangers, just because he had a physical impairment.

We still celebrate Christmas like this. We give money to Shelter, but never explore the housing policies that leave people homeless; we buy cards that support Oxfam, but never ask why the world's need for emergency aid is increasing. Charity is in, but politics is out.

Should it be like that? The question depends, of course, on how we decide what we 'should' do at Christmas. I am a Baptist minister and a theologian; I tend to think that the Biblical stories of the birth of Jesus should shape our Christmas celebrations, and I assumed this in my Theos report. Is there any politics in that nativity story?

The answer is yes, in every direction. Mary and Joseph are sent to Bethlehem by a census designed to improve the tax take; they end up homeless; after Jesus is born, they are forced by the threat of political violence to flee – as asylum seekers – to Egypt. These are all profoundly political themes. It is not hard to add more: Mary was almost certainly a teenager, given what we know of marriage customs of the day; a teenage mother, living with a man who is not the father of her child, homeless and seeking asylum – it's enough to have a Daily Mail leader writer salivating in anticipation!

But in this case, God is decidedly not on the side of the Daily Mail leader writer…

When we dig deeper into the Biblical stories, we begin to see that they don't just describe a political context, but present political proposals. And the political proposals are, shall we say, blunt. Mary sings '[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.' That's the sort of line New Labour banned back in the mid-90s to make themselves electable!

It goes much further: Rome at the time exulted in the peace it had brought to the world; there are inscriptions still readable on monuments celebrating Caesar Augustus as the 'saviour' who brought 'peace to the world'; when the Bible tells of angels appearing to the least and the lowest (that's what shepherds were…) and telling of a 'saviour' whose coming brings 'peace on earth' – and all this a few lines after the first mention of Augustus – we just have to see a deliberate and merciless mocking of the pretensions of the emperor. He 'brought peace' by using armies to stamp out any dissent ('they create a desert, and call it peace,' as the historian Tacitus memorably has it); the Christmas story in the Bible scorns any who try to bring peace by force of arms. In Syria, and perhaps also across the border in Iraq, that is a nakedly political message. No wonder King Herod was so scared by the birth of this child that he ordered brutal oppression to remove the threat.

The Biblical Christmas story is about God's concern for the least and the weakest in our society, about the need to do justice for all. When this baby is born, emperors are mocked, and tyrants terrified, and the least and the lowest are lifted up. When this baby is born, politics are decidedly on the agenda. Christmas, done properly, is political through-and-through.

Stephen R. Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of St Andrews. His Theos report, The Politics of Christmas can be downloaded for free here.

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