Putting the class (war) back into Christmas

By Jonathan Bartley
December 8, 2009

Although he didn't realise it, Gordon Brown's re-introduction of class into political debate was a thoroughly 'Christmassy' thing to do.

It only occurred to me when I noticed that I didn't get an invite to the Prime Minister's Christmas bash yesterday, for 'churchy' people.

I did last year, and that may be part of the reason I didn't get invited back. It wasn't that I had a little too much mulled wine and vomitted over the Numer 10 shag pile. (Indeed, it was a 'Christmas Tea' rather than a drinks party). I was distinctly uncomfortable afterwards nevertheless, and I am sure I wrote about it (but for the life of me can't remember where). It probably put a few backs up.

My unease was about the underlying idea of "putting Christ back into Christmas" with a Downing Street reception. There was a distinct feeling in the various speeches given at the Tea that if all the Christian leaders and politicians got together at Downing Street and sang some carols, it would send out a powerful message about the Christian-ness of the season.

It does indeed send a message. But one that is perhaps at odds with the Christmas story itself - at least as far as one of the central characters is concerned. And this is where class comes in.

According to St Luke's account of the nativity, Jesus' mother bursts into song about her pregnancy. It doesn't often feature in 'traditional' nativity plays and its not the kind of thing you would hear at a NCT class. The song is about an end to tyranny and oppression.

Mary puts the class war into Christmas. She anticipates that the powerful will be brought down, the hungry fed, and the rich sent away with nothing. The world will be turned upside down by the baby growing inside her.

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), as it came to be known, is a profoundly political song. It's a long way from the "Little Lord Jesus", so gentle, meek and mild, he doesn't cry in his manger bed. Not the point that the Restless Bishop Nick Baines Bishop of Croydon was seeking to make when he got into hot water last week, but one not a million miles from it.

But this isn't just Mary's take on it. Her feelings are entirely in keeping with the rest of the Christmas story. Oppressive Romans are seeking to extend their control and tax the Jewish population through a census. A despotic ruler sees Jesus as a potential threat, and commits a terrible atrocity in his desire to eliminate the risk. Jesus' family leave everything and flee to Egypt. The baby has clearly come to cause trouble – and the carpenter's son from Nazareth subsequently does so for both the religious and political authorities of his day.

It should also be clear that the ruling class has subsequently well and truly done a number on the festival. Indeed, there isn't a record of Christians in the first few centuries after Christ celebrating Christmas much at all. Following the fourth century conversion of Constantine, Jesus was embarrassing for a church now in bed with the same rulers that had put him to death. It has suited both church and state, in assorted alignments for the next 1700 years, to have a romanticised and sentimentalised story, not a subversive or agitating one. Even the Magi (wise men) were made into "kings", rewriting history to create a close association with the rich, rather than a challenge to it.

Mary's song has far more in common with The Red Flag than We Three Kings. It should make uncomfortable reading for the Church keen to attract people with a warm, fuzzy message at the one time of year when church attendance seems to actually increase.

It should be equally challenging for governments and those with wealth and power. It certainly makes a mockery of the traditional Queen's Speech on Christmas Day. But it should also challenge Cameron and Brown alike to think harder about class and this includes the disparity between rich and poor, which Mary highlighted - and Jesus was born to challenge.

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