Santa gets stuck in and a new Christmas tradition takes hold

By Jonathan Bartley
November 30, 2009

I was filled with a warm, fuzzy, Yuletide glow when I heard some news earlier today, which looks as if it will do a little to put the more radical Christ back into Christmas (who was exiled a long time before the 1960s).

It seems that a new Christmas tradition is developing nicely - now even to the point of infusing the Church’s establishment.

For quite a few years now, campaigners have used the Christmas story to highlight the plight of asylum seekers at Yarl’s Wood Detention (Immigration Removal) Centre in Bedfordshire.

The custom wasn’t in fact started by a Christian group. We covered it in 2003. A group of campaigners, who now must surely be seen as secular prophets, dressed up as the Holy Family and visited the detention centre in a stunt to highlight the abuses that were taking place there. They staged an arrest and escort by uniformed officers to be searched, fingerprinted and photographed.

In a better grasp of the biblical story than some Christians, they pointed out that "the picture painted by Matthew is one of chaos, a terrifying scene where refugees flee across the border clutching their children and what few possessions they have managed to save. More like Afghanistan today than the traditional nativity scene, his world, like ours, was one in which tyrants and their soldiers can tear apart the lives of innocent civilians in random acts of cruelty."

They also mischievously suggested that if Jesus had come to Britain today, he would probably have been arrested and detained.

It struck me at the time as something that the churches should really take up, and I suggested as much when I wrote about it in 2004 in The Subversive Manifesto.

The stunt has been repeated occasionally in subsequent years. And this year, Santa Claus is going to make a visit thanks to Citizens for Sanctuary (a group that Ekklesia supports) and the St Nicholas Society. The patron saint of children and the imprisoned, St Nicholas of Myra will attempt to deliver gifts to children locked up there this Friday.

Jolly Old St Nick will ask to be let through the gates of Yarl’s Wood dressed in a red robe and long white beard. He will also have a bishop’s mitre and crook which is a bit bizarre, but perhaps this is because he will be accompanied by Rev’d Professor Nicholas Sagovsky of Westminster Abbey.

The Home Office authorities who run Yarl’s Wood have refused permission for St Nicholas to enter the Centre to distribute the gifts to the children so it should be interesting. I can’t see the canon theologian staging a Jesus-style nonviolent direct action, but one can live in hope.

St Nicholas Society exists to increase interest, learning, and appreciation of the tradition of St Nicholas, whose festival falls on December 6th. St Nicholas has previously brought joy to children across the world, including in the USA and Palestine.

CITIZENS for Sanctuary is a campaign by CITIZENS UK to implement the recommendations of the Independent Asylum Commission – one of which was to end the detention of children. It has formed a coalition of 13 national faith organisations representing 7 million people to promote a Sanctuary Pledge at the 2010 General Election. Prospective Parliamentary Candidates across the country are being asked to back the Sanctuary Pledge, which includes a commitment to end the detention of children and families for immigration purposes.

After delivering the gifts, St Nicholas will be calling on churchgoers and other people of good will across the UK to ask their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to support the Sanctuary Pledge and end the detention of children.

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