December 20th, 2011
01:32 PM ET
Editor’s note: Elizabeth Hunter is director at Theos, the religion and society think tank.
By Elizabeth Hunter, Special to CNN
It has become a truism that the Victorians invented Christmas. We all know, through the yearly cycle of feature articles, that without Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens we’d all be much less merry at this time of year.
We owe to them the tradition of decorating a tree, eating turkey, and the sense that Christmas is a time to retreat to a domestic idyll with family and bolt the door on whatever turbulent political or economic changes are raging outside.
This Victorian invention is probably responsible for the results of a recent poll on the meaning of Christmas. Conducted for Theos, a think tank working in the area of religion and society, the poll found that 83% of British people think that "Christmas is about spending time with family and friends.”
Three fifths of those surveyed thought it’s also a season “when we should be generous to people less fortunate than ourselves.”
These twin themes, familial domesticity with a little bit of charity on the side, perfectly summarize how we conceive of Christmas in the 21st century.
A Gallup Poll conducted just before last Christmas, meanwhile, shows that the most popular American Christmas traditions are exchanging gifts, putting up a tree, and spending time with family and friends.
But the holiday was not always this cozy. Christmas was for many centuries a very politically charged season, defined by inversions of the normal social order.
Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1822 Christmas poem “The night before Christmas” includes the line “out on the lawn there arose such a clatter/I sprang from bed to see what was the matter.”
At the time the poem was written, disturbance on the lawn on Christmas Eve would have been not magical, but threatening, likely caused by drunken youths roaming the neighborhood, demanding gifts from respectable householders.
This was an echo of older traditions, also subversive, which saw tenants and serfs demanding gifts and being given law-like powers in this “season of misrule.”
Some regiments of the British Army still maintain the practice of officers serving men in the mess on Christmas Day. Stephen Nissenbaum’s book "The Battle for Christmas" tells the story of this transformation of Christmas from an “unruly carnival season” to the quintessential, apolitical family holiday.
Christmas then, before being domesticated by the Victorians, was a profoundly political time.
Steve Holmes, a theologian at the University of St Andrews, argues that this political edge is entirely congruent with the biblical stories of the nativity.
While only a third of people recently polled thought "Christmas is a time when we should challenge poverty and economic injustice" and less than one in five agreed that "Christmas is a time when we should challenge political oppression around the world," Holmes believes that these are closer to the kind of Christmas message we see in the gospels.
The Gospel of Matthew includes an opening genealogy which mentions four foreign women with far from virtuous reputations. Matthew's story of the Magi and the escape to Egypt, taking place around the murderous paranoia of Herod, the supposed king of the Jews, continues the theme. God is not on the side of the powerful in palaces, Matthew is saying, but rather is found among foreigners and refugees.
Luke’s gospel makes this even more explicit, repeatedly juxtaposing the poor and powerless with the imperial might of the Roman empire. The birth of Jesus takes place in Bethlehem so that Caesar can get his tax records sorted.
While the elites are worrying about economic crises and indifferent to the plight of the people, the news of the coming “Savior” is given directly to the lowest of the low in the social pecking order, the shepherds.
God is at work not among the rulers, Luke implies, but out there on the hills, in the grubby manger, far from the center of earthly power.
The most starkly political moment of the story is Mary’s Magnificat, the song of praise she sings after she is told she will bear a child: "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
Our contemporary, cozy, domestic vision of Christmas has its value; goodness knows we all need some time with our families.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elizabeth Hunter.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.