Changing how you think about Christmas can change the world

Christmas is a time when we can shut the door on politics and research impact, and re-focus on family, generosity, and for some of us, religion. But for two researchers at least, Christmas has been all about politics and research impact, and their history and theology may make you re-think your relationship with this Christian festival.

Mark Connelly from University of Kent researched the history of Christmas from 1780 to the present day, and showed how Christmas came to be viewed as a uniquely Anglo-Saxon and therefore English tradition that was exported to the British Empire as a form of social bonding. Prof Connelly explained that “it was used to promote the concept of one, huge, inter-dependent family unit which concentrated its thoughts on shared values on a particular day each year.” Prof Connelly’s research on the history of Christmas has been widely covered by TV, radio and magazines, and has featured in a number of museum exhibitions (read more about the impact of this research here).

While Christmas may have been used to achieve political ends in the British Empire, politics is the whole point of Christmas according to Stephen Holmes from University of St Andrews. His research challenges popular perceptions that the meaning of Christmas can extend to goodwill and charity, but not to politics. His research argues that the Biblical Christmas story is deeply political, and that a celebration of the birth of Jesus should by definition involve challenging poverty, economic injustice and political oppression.

His political reading of the Christmas story in The Politics of Christmas paints Jesus as a highly subversive figure. Matthew’s geneology is highly unusual for the time, as it includes four women (and to make things even more challenging, they are foreign and have scandalous histories). This foreshadows a recurrent theme in the gospels of his treatment of women, foreigners and outcasts as equals (in contrast to much of church history). As Joseph and Mary find refuge in Egypt from the then “King of the Jews”, King Herod, the gospel writers suggest that God is not on the side of the powerful, but to be found among foreigners and refugees. It is of course shepherds, who were the lowest of the social low, who hear about the birth of Jesus first. The Caesar was at the time widely known as “Saviour” on the basis of his claim that the Roman Empire brought peace to nations by conquering them. The announcement of a saviour in this context juxtaposes Jesus non-violent mission to save souls against the oppression of the empire. Finally, Mary's famous song, the Magnificat, is the most obviously political moment in the Christmas story:

“[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”.

As a result of Dr Holmes research, people around the world are more aware of the political context of the Christmas story and changed how many churches teach about and celebrate Christmas (read more about the impact of this research here).

Whether or not we accept the spiritual content of Jesus’ message, a political re-reading the Christmas story gives us an opportunity to find new meaning in Christmas. Christmas can and should be about politics and impact; a time when we challenge poverty, economic injustice and political oppression around the world.

These two Christmas case studies come from a database of case studies showcasing the impact of UK research. Fast Track Impact is studying these case studies to understand how researchers can use their work to address social justice and other challenges around the world.


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