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Christmas: From Political Narrative to Family Holiday

The birth of Jesus was a political event “through and through” – and our celebration of Christmas should be a time when we confront the systems and structures that keep people in poverty and oppression.
Instead, the political themes of the Gospels’ nativity accounts are overlooked in favor of the “Victorian invention” of a family-centered celebration and a sentimental view of Christ’s birth.

That’s the argument of British Baptist minister, Steve Holmes, who last week set in motion a debate about the very nature of how we celebrate Christmas.

Holmes, who teaches theology at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland, was commissioned by the think-tank Theos to write a paper on the subject.

In “The Politics of Christmas,” he argued that political debate stops at Christmas because the Victorians reinvented Christmas as a time to celebrate the family and domesticity.

However, up until the early 19th century Christmas had often been celebrated with “anarchic reversals of authority structures.”

The biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus, studied in the context of the period, are markedly political, taking in such themes as government bureaucracy, healthcare provision, brutal dictatorship, homelessness, asylum seekers and a single teenage mother, Holmes wrote.

For example, Mary and Joseph are only in Bethlehem because of a census intended to regularize taxation records and then they rapidly become asylum seekers in Egypt, fleeing oppression by the local political authority, King Herod.

More than that, Holmes said, the biblical stories of the birth of Jesus are set at a time of political unrest. Palestine at the time has fairly recently been occupied by Rome, and resentment and talk of revolution are everywhere.

The Christmas story is “a story of God’s interference in, and transformation of, the political order” and should be marked accordingly, Holmes said.

“Nativity plays and carol services are not – or should not be – safe, comfortable, “feel-good” moments through which we escape from reality, but rather occasions of truth and hope, where the faithfulness of God breaks through into the ordinary, where we are invited to consider how God intervenes in the business of politics.”

Holmes’ study sparked debate on both the Theos website and Facebook. He told The Baptist Times he hopes it will make people think about the way we celebrate Christmas.

“There are lots of good charity schemes, whether Christmas cards or shoebox appeals or Tearfund and others doing the ‘give a goat’ type gifts, and all of that is good and right.

“The Bible stories, though, point out that poverty is generally the effect of oppressive structures, and that part of God’s intervention in the world when he comes is to challenge those structures directly: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,’ as Mary sings (Luke 2:32). Christmas – more directly, perhaps, than any other season of the Christian year – should be a time when we confront the systems and structures that keep people in poverty and oppression.”

He also hopes it will open people’s eyes to the “strikingly political material” in the gospels that is not immediately visible without some knowledge of the history of the period.

“When you realize that Caesar Augustus was celebrated as the ‘savior’ who brought ‘peace to the earth,’ for instance, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds (which comes just a few lines after Luke’s first mention of Augustus) that a ‘savior’ is born, bringing ‘on earth, peace’ takes on a very different tone.

“Not that it doesn’t mean that Jesus saves us from our sins and gives us peace with God – of course he does – but at the same time it is a deliberate mocking of the Emperor’s pretensions.”

Elizabeth Hunter, Theos’ director, said that while Christmas is “undoubtedly” a time for family and for generosity, it should also be a moment when we “hear and attend to a message of justice and freedom for all.”

“The gospel writers repeatedly emphasize the political implications of the birth of Jesus, but we fail to hear them through the clamor of jingle bells.

“However, in this year above all, in which we have seen the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests, we should turn from a sentimentalized vision of the season and listen carefully to the true political message of the Christmas story.”

For the debate on Theos, click here.

This article appeared originally in TheBaptistTimes of Great Britain.