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Peace on earth, or a political football?

22 December 2016

In a new book, Gerry Bowler identifies some recent Christmas traditions, radical appropriations of the nativity — and the health risk that is Father Christmas


Unexpurgated: Santa with pipe

Unexpurgated: Santa with pipe

THE hunger of journalists, producers, and talk show guest-bookers for something new to fill pages and air time during the month of December cannot be over-estimated. Every year the same old stories will appear about the seasonal charities, the traditional recipes and the variations on them, celebrities’ holiday memories, the school concerts, performances of the Nutcracker and Messiah, festive light and house decoration tours, choosing the right tree, warnings from government agencies about fire hazards, salmonella in the eggnog and alcohol abuse.

Every year some poor, but deserving, family will lose their presents to fire or burglary, and every year their plight will be alleviated when media attention is brought to bear. Every year the Pope will issue a plea for world peace and be echoed by every local religious leader whose phone number is in a reporter’s digital Rolodex. Every year the old myths will be recycled — Santa is an invention of Coca-Cola, Martin Luther invented the candle-lit Christmas tree, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song is really a secret Catholic code, a Japanese department store once featured a crucified Santa, the suicide rate goes up at Christmas, poinsettia leaves are deadly poison — and duly rebutted.

So when an anti-smoking campaigner comes along with a new twist on “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, she is immediately booked on morning and afternoon talk-shows around the continent to tell people that Santa Claus has to be deprived of his pipe for the sake of the children. Canadian writer Pamela McColl omitted the lines “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, / And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath” in order to “save lives and avoid influencing new smokers”.

The fact that she was instantly attacked by librarians and foes of censorship made this appropriation of Christmas pure gold for the media — not only could they produce precious column inches out of the bowdlerizer’s work but they could also report on the controversy. A British public health campaign with the slogan “All children really want this Christmas is their parents to quit smoking” had less impact, probably because it featured earnest children and did not attack the iconic Santa Claus.


Santa the bringer of health risks
SCHOLARS have concluded, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that, in many ways, Santa Claus is a “public health pariah”. An article in The British Medical Journal pointed to a number of risks that the magical gift-bringer posed. He often was used to promote unhealthy and dangerous products such as alcohol, and leaving a glass of sherry out for St Nick clearly sent the wrong message to kids about drinking and driving. Accidents are the leading cause of childhood death and yet Santa is an exponent of “extreme sports such as roof surfing and chimney jumping”. His contact with ill children and his wide travels make him a vector in the spread of infectious diseases. And then there is obesity — the article laments that Santa was “a late adopter of evidence-based behaviour change and continues to sport a rotund image”. The authors noted that, given his global influence, Santa need only “affect health by 0.1% to damage millions of lives”. A new positive image was necessary.

The American Dietetic Associ­ation, “the nation’s largest organiza­tion of food and nutrition profes­sionals”, again enlisted Santa to create awareness of calorie intake and healthy food choices. They calculated that if Santa consumed two butter cookies and a glass of whole milk at each house he visited he would end up absorbing more than seven billion calories and 384 million grams of fat — and that was in the U.S. alone. (Who could calculate the additional damage from the shortbread left out by Scottish children, the mince tarts in England or the cold beer provided by thoughtful Australian tots?) In order to spare Santa’s waistline from fatal damage the Association recom­mended offering him skim milk, “skinny nog” and graham crackers.


Using the nativity to advance
THE central image of the Nativity scene — a young mother and her baby huddling in a stable — has a powerful emotional impact that has been expressed by artists for cen­turies. In the twenty-first century that image has been appropriated in the debate about admitting refugees from Africa and the Middle East to Europe and North America.

In 2013 the life-size figure of Balthazar, one of the Wise Men, was stolen from a nativity scene in Santi­ago de Com­postela, Spain, and was later found outside the office of the General Secretariat for Emigration with a sign denouncing the use of razor wire to protect the border be­­tween Morocco and a small Spanish en­­clave in North Africa. (Protesters had claimed that the wire harmed those who were trying to infiltrate Spanish territory to seek asylum.)

The internet in late 2015 was flooded by memes depicting the Holy Family and finger-wagging captions: “Don’t forget to hate re­­fugees as you set up a nativity scene celebrating a Middle Eastern couple desperately seeking shelter,” said one; another read, “Remember that Jesus was an undocumented child refugee.” In two other illustrations of outdoor crèches, one was labelled “It’s nice that people put out these lawn ornaments to signal that their homes have room to take in re­­fugees,” while the motto over the other read “If you are refusing to help refugees you may not know what this is.” (Critics of the memes retorted that the Holy Family were not refugees; they were merely responding to a census, and their “flight into Egypt” was, in fact, well-funded by the gold brought by the Wise Men.)

The other side of the debate was not shy either about using Chris­tmas to argue for an end to migra­tion. In Dresden, Germany, PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen eine Islamisierung des Abendlandes or “Patriotic Euro­peans Against Islamisation of the West”) took to the streets to protest the flood of Muslim im­migration into their country. Carrying banners with slogans such as “Against Hatred, Violence, and the Quran”, “Against Religious Fanaticism”, and “No Sharia in Europe”, the marchers carried song sheets which had been distributed online. To assert their Germanness and to equate national identity with Christianity, they sang traditional Christmas carols: “Stille Nacht”, “Alle Jahre Wieder” and “O Du Fröhliche”.

Christmas cards with a political message have a long history with the radical Left. One from late nine­teenth century Britain contrasts the humble Jesus riding a donkey with the contemporary aristocracy in their elegant coaches: “In days of yore when Divinity rode / On His mission of Love, an ass He be­­strode. / But woe for the change! It now takes, alas, / Two men and two horses to carry an ass.” During the pre-World War I struggle for female votes, one card showed a smiling suffragette in her prison cell and the caption: “Hoping you’re in for a good time this Xmas! May Xmas never prove a ‘sell’, / And naught mar your delights, / For when they give you 14 days, / You’ll get your Womens Rights.”

The right wing has had its turn at using Christmas cards to advance their cause, though examples are very much rarer. There are infinitely more pro-union, pro-Greenpeace, anti-war, pro-choice, pro-Castro etc., cards produced than those ad­­vocating management rights, coal mining, the invasion of Iraq, an end to abortion or prolonging the Cuban embargo.

Since the right is often associated with maintenance of the status quo, they are less often in­­volved in social agitation and less likely to use Christmas to shake up the estab­lishment. It seems that it is only when the right is in an insurrec­tionary mode that they are likely to appropriate the holy season. White Russian émigrés who fled the Soviet revolution produced a card showing a tree decorated with military medals commemorating their fight. The fiercely anti-Communist UPA, a Ukrainian resistance movement, issued a card in 1945 showing one of its camou­flaged fighters looking at a blazing star in the heavens.


The symbolic power of greenery
DECORATING the house with greenery, which so enraged the churchmen of late antiquity who saw it as a pagan remnant of the Kalends, became a means of not only brightening the home in the dark of winter but also a way to tell a hundred little pious stories about the Nativity or foreshadows of the Cruci­fixion. Fragrant rosemary was said to be the plant on which Mary hung to dry her cloak (or, some say, the baby’s swaddling clothes). Holly with its sharp-edge leaves and red berries was seen as a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns and the blood he shed. Christmas wreaths of holly or evergreen were said to symbolize eternal life. Ivy was said to be a female plant and a symbol of the human weakness which clings to divine strength. Even mistletoe, long associated with the pagan Druids, could find a place in church. In York Minster during the Middle Ages a branch of mistletoe was laid on the altar during the Twelve Days of Christmas and a public peace proclaimed in the city for as long as it remained there.


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