CharlesB at SPAMCNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Thu Dec 23 15:42:43 MST 1999
The revolutionary history of Christmas
By Tim Yeager
Christmastime 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 synthesized 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 Savior, 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
She and her fiancee 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 labor
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
Fortunately, the young family is tipped off and they flee into a neighboring 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 organize a movement for social and
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 * "
"* 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."
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
The political ramifications of this carol were well understood by some reactionaries
in our own country and it continues to be controversial.
The song was banned for years in many conservative churches in the U.S. 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
Whoever you are, have a merry and revolutionary Christmas. And let us then enter the
new millennium resolved to wipe out homelessness, poverty, racism and injustice once
and for all!
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