Christmas in America is caught in the culture wars. Conservatives continue to claim victimization in a fictitious “war on Christmas,” which can only be won by “keeping Christ in Christmas,” while progressives decry the materialism of the consumer holiday.
But the conflict is older than that. Christmas has been at the center of cultural, political, and religious wars of meaning for millennia. The Bible itself contains conflicting versions of the narrative of Christ’s birth.
What sense are we to make of the holiday? What does it matter to political movements on the left, whether Christians, atheists, or people of other faiths?
Regardless of your religious (non)affiliations, it is worth knowing what the New Testament has to say about the story of Jesus’s birth, and how interpretation of these stories can support or undermine our causes. Beginning here also shows that even within scripture there are competing narratives.
The Gospel birth narratives are first and foremost stories. These biographers of Jesus’s life were not present for his birth. And as with any good story, each is written to convey a specific point.
Matthew: Jesus v. King Herod
Matthew’s Gospel is the first book in the New Testament. It attests Jesus’s birth as parallel to Moses in the Hebrew Bible: both were born during time of crisis, both narrowly escaped death, and people speak of them as ones who liberate.
The longer section of Jesus’s birth narrative in Matthew is not about the birth itself, but the infant Jesus. Astrologers from the East follow a star, bearing gifts, which take them to Jesus, the infant king, but first they make an appearance before King Herod. Either the star takes them there or they assume that kings should be born in palaces. King Herod tells them to come back to rat out where the royal baby is located. They never do.
The storyteller seems to be revealing his political agenda: it’s not those with power who are important enough to have stars appear over their heads, but a baby who can’t say full sentences.
King Herod is infuriated when the astrologers do not return. Like most empires under threat, they respond violently.
Jesus’s family became refugees. They were sought after to be killed. They were forced out of their home by a cruel dictator.
Eventually, Jesus and his family move back after Herod died — but not to the birthplace in Bethlehem, but to the northern mountain city of Nazareth. Because they moved, Jesus was raised in a small peasant town of poor farmers. Ironically, this “new king” who has Herod plotting infanticide comes to live not in Rome, the center of power, or even the important city of Bethlehem, but on the periphery.
Jesus’s mother, Mary, during this time would’ve been no older than fifteen. Joseph would’ve been over thirty, and his profession of carpenter was far from esteemed. In today’s society, Mary would be a pregnant high schooler marrying a day laborer.
In Matthew, it’s the dispossessed, the underclass, and those without social/political capital who have the true revolutionary power to liberate.
Luke: Protest Songs, Outcasts, and Heresy
The third book in the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke, also speaks of Jesus’s birth. This time they’re not refugees, but poor. And the story is told from Mary’s perspective.
While Jesus is growing inside Mary, she becomes suddenly inspired and belts out a remarkable song — a radical declaration of protest against the wealthy. She sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” and “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary declared a reversal of political and social power, a reversal that would be accomplished by the Almighty. She proclaimed that God was on the side of the oppressed and poor, not those already fed and sitting high on their thrones.
Mary’s song has not remained read only by the pious. It has adopted by justice movements around the world. Its message is threatening to imperial powers that it has been banned time and again by totalitarian governments: in India under British Rule, during the Dirty War in Argentina, throughout the Guatemalan civil war, and in the 1970s and 1980s in El Salvador.
Also in Luke, as Jesus was being birthed, an army of angels announce to the shepherds a seemingly innocent phrase: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.”
This was not as innocuous as it seems to a reader today — it was a sweeping pronouncement against Caesar Augustus.
The Priene Inscription, found written on stone around 9 BCE, celebrated Augustus’s birthday and proclaimed his divinity. It reads:
[Caesar Augustus] being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and whereas, having become God manifest, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times . . . the birthday of the God Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him.
According to the Roman Empire, Augustus, the imperial ruler, was divine and the embodiment of peace. Anyone who claimed any different was either killed or enslaved. The fact that the heavenly angels declared the moments-old baby, born far from the halls of power and wealth, a bringer of peace spat in the face of empire.
After receiving the angelic message, the shepherds visit the newborn. Historically, shepherds were the outcasts: some were young children, and all were likely in extreme poverty. But that did not matter much when they visited an animal stable used for eating and shitting, and covered with fleas and rodents.
If Matthew’s story asks, “Who has the power?” then Luke is asking, “When is the poor people’s revolution happening?” Over and over, Luke spells out a bottom-up revolutionary ethic, with women and the poor leading the way against the powerful.
The Gospel writers were not reporters trying to get their story factually correct, but polemicists constructing anti-imperial narratives. In the Gospels, it is not Caesar who brings peace to the world. He brings violence and enslavement of the conquered.
For the Gospel writers, this poor baby boy, born among the fleas, brought peace — a peace not for the wealthy elite, but for the forgotten and downtrodden.
Cultural History of Christmas
Needless to say, not all Christians share our interpretation of these stories. And so with the complicated narratives in the Bible as a foundation, Christmas has been shaped and reshaped — claimed, denounced, and reclaimed in countless ways over the centuries. People have fought over the extent to which the inevitable mixing with pagan rituals and dominant culture would be allowed to shape the meaning and practice of the holiday.
As Gerry Bowler shows in Christmas in the Crosshairs, as far back as the Middle Ages, religious and secular elites were concerned with the debaucherous behavior that often accompanied celebration of the holiday: music, dancing, gluttonous eating, and drinking. Puritans in England went even further, encouraging people to fast during the holiday and incited mob riots against stores that were open on the day.
In the modern era, some progressive Christians have sought to reform Christmas and bring it into alignment with liberal values. Bill McKibben and others have called to end the commercialism of the holiday and point out environmental concerns about the enormous amounts of excess trash and fossil fuel consumption resulting from the consumer frenzy. Adbusters has long campaigned for a “Buy Nothing Day,” and the Church of Stop Shopping’s mission is summed up in their name. All have encouraged people to purchase less, and refocus the holiday on spending time with loved ones and donating or volunteering for charities
It is unquestionable that the consumerism of Christmas is a problem, creating pressure for working families to fall further into debt, and for retail workers who face miserable crowds for long hours and low pay and no holidays off themselves. But these anti-consumerist critiques fall short of what the revolutionary spirit of Christmas could be. Worse, they echo the sort of cultural and behavioral policing elites have often enacted on the working classes.
Capitalism will not be overthrown by consumer boycotts. It is only an organized working class that can do that. And these days, workers could use a little reprieve, and a chance to renew ourselves for the fight ahead. Doing so also offers us an opportunity to remember that the Christmas stories, the “reason for the season” that the conservative cultural warriors are always screeching about, are actually stories about the urgent struggle for liberation. Rituals that lift up the lowly and bring the powerful down from their thrones are rituals worth celebrating.
But part of what is redeemable about the holiday is that it can bring joy and hope for some who need it. While the Christmas season can also be stressful, lonely and depressing, for some it is one of a few times a year that they may get time off from work, can see family, and feel that they can provide their children with a joyous experience. This celebration happens in honor of an ancient revolutionary story, one that continues to be relevant today.
Christmas at its best celebrates the entrance in the world of one who would bring good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoner. There isn’t one “right” way to celebrate the holiday. But there is plenty of room in it for those of us who struggle for justice to claim it as our own. In the words of the theologian Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.