The real offensiveness of Christmas

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
27 Dec 2007

The outside chance of a white one was always a poor bet: the the surest thing about Christmas these days is the December diet of scaremongering fed to us by those who believe that the festival is under attack.

This year, it began with the news that a think tank (not Ekklesia, I hasten to add) was proposing that it be “downgraded”. It was not long before schools were allegedly abandoning nativity plays in favour of “secular” alternatives. There were familiar tales of local councils rebranding Christmas as “Winterval” and offering neutral “season’s greetings”. One MP even initiated a debate in the House of Commons on the subject.

Those responsible, it is claimed, are fearful of offending other faiths. But, ask the indignant critics (who have often embellished the same Christmas tales they are protesting against), what is offensive about putting up a tree, getting together with friends and family, exchanging cards and gifts, attending a church service, and singing a few carols?

The answer is, of course, “Nothing.” Christmas was downgraded and stripped of its threatening content a long time ago. But the self-appointed defenders of Yuletide are in for a rude shock. It is not the politically correct or the Loony Left that threatens their nice nativity. Rather, it is that Christmas is becoming increasingly political. And by that I do not mean the Royal Mail’s decision to use religious imagery on its stamps, nor the debate about the greetings cards that the Prime Minister will send. It is more that people are rediscovering the fact that the Christmas story has teeth.

Its harder messages about taxation, poverty, child-killing, unmarried parents, asylum-seekers, and oppressive rulers, not to mention regime change, have often been avoided under the old alliance of Christianity and culture. But Christians on the margins, rather than in the centre, of society, have less need to avoid the more uncomfortable aspects of the Christmas story.

This year, in a powerful move, the Amos Trust produced a subversive nativity crib-scene, made in Bethlehem by Palestinian Christians, containing Israel’s separation wall. The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance has put together an Advent calendar of daily readings, pictures, and meditations written by those living with AIDS. Even the BBC has screened a modern-day Liverpool Nativity designed to tell “the intimate, personal story of a pregnant young girl set against a backdrop of political tension and unrest”.

And the trend has been visible for a while. In the 1990s, the last Conservative government was pushing through one of its frequent Immigration and Asylum Bills. An MP from the Opposition benches got up to speak, and started to relate a story of an unmarried couple who were fleeing a despotic ruler.

As the story progressed, however, it became clear that it was not a couple in his constituency to which he referred. It was the Holy Family.

That family, he said, would not have qualified for asylum under the Government’s proposals. The point was not lost on the devout Roman Catholic Minister at the despatch box, whose discomfort was clear for all in the Chamber to see.

Christmas is offensive, and for ever will be. It legitimates the undermining of those in authority. But it is also about looking after not just those who are “deserving” of our love, but those who may appear disreputable and unworthy.

Those who would be the first to defend Christmas are usually the last to embrace the fullness of its meaning.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from one that appeared recently in The Church Times newspaper, with acknowledgments.

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