The Guardian December 13, 2000


The revolutionary history of Christmas

by Tim Yeager* 

Christmas time can be so depressing. It brings out some of the worst 
features of capitalism and rubs them in our faces. You can't escape, 
whatever your philosophical or religious belief. Advertisements spur on 
feelings of guilt if you don't buy enough of the right kinds of consumer 
products for people you love.

Creative financing is offered so that lenders can make even more profit.

And it is an environmental disaster  more plastic, cardboard and 
packaging is produced, carted about, and dumped into landfills, vacant 
lots, and incinerators at Christmas time than at any other time of the 
year.

And yet ...

Nearly smothered beneath piles of gift catalogues and sale circulars, 
nearly drowned in a sea of synthesised elevator-music Christmas carols, in 
a locked theological vault guarded down through the centuries by legions of 
preachers, priests and pontiffs, there burns a persistent secret flame.

It is the flame of a revolutionary hope  hope for a better world, a more 
just society, where the social order is turned upside down so that the poor 
are fed and the rich are relieved of their ill-gotten gains.

And it is something that working people of any culture, any religious or 
philosophical background can relate to.

What does Christmas have to do with the class struggle? In a word  
everything. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, in a land far away on the edge of a great empire, there 
was a people with an ancient culture, a storied past, and a great 
literature, who had been conquered by a technologically advanced imperial 
power.

They were occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by corrupt local despots 
who collaborated with the foreign oppressors. There were periodic revolts 
of local peasants and slaves that were put down mercilessly.

In the midst of all that, a young unmarried girl becomes pregnant out of 
wedlock.

You might think she would regret this development, but on the contrary, she 
finds in the anticipated birth of a child a reason to rejoice and to hope 
for a better world.

In her joy and determination, she sings an ancient song of liberation:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, 
henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has 
done great things for me ...  

He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the 
imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones 
and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Luke 1:46-53

She and her fiance are then forced to make a difficult journey while she is 
in the last weeks of her pregnancy, ostensibly to comply with the demands 
of their imperial rulers to register for a census.

They are denied lodging in local inns. Homeless, the young family takes 
shelter in a stable, where the mother goes into labour and gives birth to a 
baby boy among barnyard animals.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for a child in whom his mother had placed 
such hope. And then things get worse.

The local ruler, a collaborator who is kept in power through an occupation 
army, decides on an act of terror.

Convinced that a revolt is brewing in the village where the young couple 
has just had their baby, he sends in death squads to kill all the male 
children under a certain age.

Fortunately, the young family is tipped off and they flee into a 
neighbouring country. There they wait until they receive news of the death 
of their corrupt local despot, and thereafter return to raise their son in 
their hometown.

When he grows up, the boy becomes a carpenter. As if to fulfill the 
revolutionary hope expressed in his mother's song, he goes on to organise a 
movement for social and economic change.

It is composed of a coalition of fishermen, reformed prostitutes, the 
unemployed and low-level public servants, with a cross-section of men and 
women, and people of different ethnic backgrounds.

The aims of the movement are clear from the very beginning:

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley 
shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the 
crooked shall be made straight ...

Luke 3:4-5.

... he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me 
to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, 
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable Year 
of the Lord.

Luke 4:18-19.

And so, when you look at the Christmas story closely, you find a story of 
working-class people living in difficult times, in circumstances not too 
different from those faced by millions of people today.

These are people who are aware of their history of struggle. They draw 
strength from the lessons of the past and nourish hopes and dreams for a 
better world.

Mary, the young mother in the Christmas story is supremely confident that 
the future will be better.

Her song, known as the Magnificat, is nothing less than 
revolutionary.

This revolutionary aspect of Christmas is also found in the popular 
Christmas carol, O Holy Night (Cantique de Noel).

The words were written by the French socialist Placide Cappeau de 
Roquemaure and it was translated into English by the American Abolitionist 
John Sullivan Dwight.

The music was written by Adolphe Charles Adam, a friend of Cappeau's who 
was Jewish. One verse of the carol states:

Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel 
is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his 
name all oppression shall cease!

The political ramifications of this carol were well understood by some 
reactionaries in the US and it continues to be controversial.

The song was banned for years in many conservative churches and many radio 
stations in the South refused to play it.

So, whenever you get weary of the holidays and all the claptrap that 
surrounds them, remember the young family of the Christmas story, how they 
hoped and dreamed for a revolutionary transformation of their country and 
how they persevered in the face of oppression.

Whoever you are, have a merry and revolutionary Christmas. And let us then 
enter the new year resolved to wipe out homelessness, poverty, racism and 
injustice once and for all!

* * *
*Tim Yeager is a full-time trade unionist and a member of the National Committee of the CPUSA.

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