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What Is Christmas Really About?
2nd December 2011
Turn the clock back a few centuries, and European celebrations of Christmas were deeply entwined with local political realities. Christmas was a season of misrule, a time when normal relationships of power and privilege were reversed, and peasants were elected to take the role of Lord of the manor, able to dispense goods and pass laws. Probably, this is best read as a safety-valve which served to preserve the status quo, rather than as an enacted challenge to the social order. It was political, though. (The tradition still persists in some ways. In British Army regiments, on Christmas day the officers will serve the other ranks in the mess, do guard duty, and so on.)
By the beginning of the nineteenth century this tradition was lost. Christmas was often almost forgotten; where it was still celebrated, an adult version of trick-or-treating (of ‘guising’, as we call it in
This side of the
And so, today, in
At the heart of Christmas are the Biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth. There are two, perhaps three, of them. From Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel we get the story we are all so familiar with. An angel appears to a virgin called Mary, telling her she will become pregnant. Her fiancé Joseph is at first horrified, but then reconciled by a visit from the same angel. Together, Mary heavily pregnant, they travel from
It should not need saying that this is a profoundly politicised narrative. The census is all about rationalising tax records. Through this government bureaucracy, Mary and Joseph are rendered homeless, and she gives birth in profoundly unsanitary conditions. Herod’s fear makes the family political refugees, asylum seekers in a foreign land because of their real fear of political violence at home.
More than this, however, the story told - particularly perhaps by Luke - is an account of God’s decisive intervention in political realities. Mary sings, in the Magnificat, celebrating God’s saving action: the proud are scattered, the powerful are removed from their thrones, the rich are dismissed with nothing. By contrast, the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled. Pregnant with Jesus, surrounded by suspicion and hostility on every side, Mary prophesies powerfully about God’s active intervention in human politics, assuming and asserting that current political realities will be overturned.
Luke goes on to tell us of a decree issues by ‘Emperor Augustus’. Augustus was celebrated - worshipped, indeed - across the Eastern empire as the ‘saviour’ who had brought ‘peace’ to the world. Immediately, Luke switches the scene to shepherds on a hillside, and an angelic proclamation of a ‘saviour’ born, who will bring ‘peace’ to the world. The coincidence is too strong. Luke must be mocking the pretensions of the emperor. The emperor’s peace was achieved by brutal oppression; as Tacitus had it, memorably, ‘they create a desert, and call it peace.’ Luke directly challenges the current political spin with a narrative of a true saviour who would bring true peace.
In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, we read at one point of a woman bearing a child, whilst a many-headed monster lurks, waiting to devour the child as he is born (Rev. 12:1-5). The many-headed monster is
We should do politics at Christmas, politics that challenges comfortable elites or insensitive bureaucrats in the name of justice for the most needy. That would be faithful to the Biblical narratives of the incarnation.
Image by Joe Buckingham.