Responding to Tara Moore’s post this week on the political offensiveness of Christmas, Ben Ryan at British think tank Theos argues that Christmas remains a celebratory season. He suggests that, in the UK at least, political conflict tends to be suspended over the Christmas period. Ben argues that despite the potentially radical Christian ideas it represents, these are unlikely to be realised in the currently market-dominated festive season.
One of the main arguments of the Theos report by Stephen Holmes The Politics of Christmas is that the vision of Christmas as a domestic time of bliss with family and friends is a 19th Century invention. The incarnation, the real point of Christmas, is a quite astonishing story of God becoming a human being for humanity’s sake. That would immediately be the most radical story ever told even before the political and social idea that come of God being born into poverty: the King of kings born to an unmarried peasant couple and simultaneously inspiring affection and love from poor shepherds and wealthy wise men, and fear from the powers that be.
Christmas has always, therefore, had a sharp political edge to it. The incarnation changes everything. The rules of the game have been radically altered for ever more and the new age brought into being.
Where I would disagree with Tara Moore is in seeing Christmas as something that always moved to the needs of the people celebrating it. Christmas has certainly changed, from a novel festival that was unknown in the early Church, to an endless stream of cultural accoutrements that have garnished it into what it is today in so many different places. Despite that indisputable fact I would suggest that there has been one really significant shift – and it has only occurred in the last century (perhaps only the last 40-50 years). For all the changes and traditions which have sprung up around Christmas there has never been any doubt until our own time as to what Christmas most fundamentally is – the celebration of the birth of Christ and the incarnation.
It is more recently that the heart of that tradition seems to have been hollowed out. Basic knowledge about the religious aspects of Christmas is on the wane. Only 8% of the British public are likely to attend a Church service over Christmas. While previous culture clashes over Christmas in the UK were between groups who fundamentally agree about what Christmas is about, now the situation is one in which the traditions broadly remain in place but the underlying meaning is no longer perceived as especially important.
This, ironically, is why I suspect Christmas in the UK at least is so uncontroversial. While Americans get excited over the ‘war on Christmas’, the British situation is, on the whole, pretty uncontested. True, from time to time a ‘Winterval’ situation is reported in the Mail and a politician gets criticised for not mentioning Christmas in a Christmas card, but these are relatively minor incidents. In general there simply isn’t that much excitement over such events because culture in the UK is now saturated by a secularism of apathy, characterised by a broad general ignorance, more than any genuine hostility. There isn’t much that is offensive about Christmas in the UK because quite simply there are far too few people who really care about the Christian element inside it anyway.
As an example, a couple of weeks ago an article was published in Humanist Life entitled “10 tips for a happy humanist Christmas”. It is so lacking in any real punch or energy about Christmas, either in a religious or political sense, as to be almost impossibly bland – to the extent that one wonders almost what the point was to it at all. This is the context of Christmas in the UK today, a sort of free-for-all set of traditions with only a fairly minimal level of public concern for the origins or meaning behind it.
It is for this reason that, for the UK at least, I suspect Tara Moore is wrong. Christmas isn’t destined to become more controversial. Given the very radical political and theological messages of Christmas, this is something of a tragedy, and in many ways I hope to be proven wrong. After all, after Black Friday, we could do with a bit more edge at Christmas time.
Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.