A Visitation From St Nicholas

I have had a lousy Christmas because I believe in Santa Claus and someone’s gone and crucified him.

Roger McGough

Last summer, Jesus was omnipresent. Mel Gibson’s DVD was in the shops, and that picture of the sacred head sore wounded was prominently displayed in all the DVD stores and newspapers. I’m pretty sure I saw it on the side of a bus. Marketing logic says that if something is going to be a big seller anyway, then them promote it like hell and claim the credit.

For those of use for whom Jesus is—at the very least—and iconic figure, this felt strange. We expect images of the dying Saviour to appear in churches, religious drama, or serious art. We don’t like it when it turns up in a deliberately sacreligious or blasphemous context, but we can deal with that. If the image wasn’t still widely regarded as holy, no-one would bother to desecrate it. What surprises us is to see the image of Christ in a context which is neither holy, nor particularly offensive, but just there. As if there were nothing very special about it. It would be rather as if you a saw a Nazi swastika on the fruit and vegetable counter at Sainsburies, or a man’s penis on display outside a clothes retailer. To me, the image of Jesus is taboo. Magic. It has power regardless of context. It leaps out and says “look at me.” But obviously, different things are taboo for different people. Old people still regard the word “fuck” as a word of power. Young people happily emblazon it on their tee-shirts.

We are told that Christians are now a minority in this country; and that a majority of school-children can’t name Jesus’ mother. (Admittedly, we are also told a majority of school-children think that Gandalf commanded the English fleet against the Spanish Armada.) Well then: does the non-religious majority still regard the figure with a bloody face and a crown of thorns in any sense taboo? How do they react when they see it? Do they come over all Richard Dawkins and get upset about how dreadful it is that these flat-earthers force them to look at images out of their evil religion? Or are they more like those patronising English tourists in India, saying “Well, I know these images have religious significance and I don’t quite understand them, but these quaint folk-ways give a nice background of exoticism to the country.” Or is the image now completely devoid of power, something that you can look through? Is Christ-on-a-bus no more disconcerting, than, say Achilles or Winston Churchill?

I feel a similar confusion, albeit in a lower register, when I go to the shops around December. Every mall and every retail outlet has been issued with its own compilation tape of Christmas music, all equally loud and equally irritating. “Christmas Music” does, of course, cover a multitude of musical sins. I actually had to stop going to Starbucks last year because they kept playing a record of some rap singer murdering The Little Drummer Boy. Not that I haven’t wanted to murder the little drummer boy myself on more than one occasion. (It’s always amusing to see what animal they will have beating time in order to avoid referring to the “ox and the arse”. This year it was a mule, I think.) When the singer’s riffing on the tarrumpatumtums, do the people drinking their coffee think they are listening to a religious song or a secular one? Who is this new-born king? Do we know anything about him beyond his precocious enthusiasm for percussion improvisations?

Some of the songs you get bombarded with while being jostled around Woolworths are highly religious, even theological, actual hymns. Some are secular rubbish of the most vulgar and vaccuus kind. You slide from

“Joyful now behold him arise
King and God and Sacrifice”


“He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out
Who’s naughty and nice”

with out any clear sense that there might be two different “he’s” involved.

So I have the same question that I did about the photo from the Passion. What is it like to be a non-religious person at a time of year when religious imagery is un-avoidable. Do you mind having hymns played at you along with the red-nosed-reindeer, the winter wonderland and the cheap lousy faggots? Does any residual taboo of holiness attach to Once in royal David’s city? Or is it just an “xmas carol” in the same category as The Little Boy Who Santa Claus Forgot?

It’s not quite true to say that the popular Christmas has now become a non-religious event. A deity called “babyjesus” is certainly one component of the popular festival. He may even be the single most important component, in that you would feel your solstice had been spoiled if the school nativity or community carol service were canceled. Babyjesus is a non-threatening character who brings hope to the world in an essentially non-religious way. Since no-one takes babyjesus very seriously (serious Christians worship the more complicated and unsettling figure who Mel Gibson was sticking on DVD covers) there is no real problem with placing him alongside Father Christmas. Both are aesthetically pleasing folk tales that no adult believes in. Away in a manger is, in this sense, no more a “religious” song, than, say, The Animals Went in Two By Two or Any Dream Will Do.

This Christmas, there was a storm in a mince pie over a display at Madame Tussauds. (If no-one had ever invented photography, then it would be easy to understand the appeal of seeing life-sized effigies of famous people, but they have and it isn’t) One of the waxwork carvers thought that it would be a wheeze to dress up some of their their models and put them in a Nativity scene. George Bush was one of the three wise men. I guess that’s “satire”.

So far, so terribly boring. But some god-fearing type was very offended by the implicit irreverence, and vandalised the display. You see: we can’t even do iconoclasm properly any more. We used to march into old churches and smash up priceless works of art because they were papist and idolatrous but the best which modern day puritans can manage is knocking the head off one poxy waxwork.

I think what we are seeing here is a clash between the babyjesus religion, and Christianity. Is the nativity taboo? To Madame Tussauds management it’s a fade-into-the-background image about a harmless folklore character. Neither taboo nor particularly religious. To the amateur puritan, it’s a representation of the infancy of the son of God, a jumps-into-the-foreground image which is too holy to mess with.

Or again, the Daily Lie dedicated it’s whole front page to a classic renaissance oil painting of the Nativity scene, under the banner headline “Is this the most offensive image in England?” A perfectly good rhetorical question. One could formulate all sorts of answers. “Yes, now you come to mention it, it is pretty offensive that some woman is so poor that she has got to give birth in a mucky farmyard, which is probably almost as unhygienic as an NHS hospital.” And if you believe that the baby is the Son of God, then it’s incredibly offensive that people can’t even find space for God in their spare room, and shunt him into the shed instead. But, of course, we’ve domesticated the image and made it cute; so the force of the basic Christian message is lost, which is quite offensive in itself.

Of course, this wasn’t what they had in mind. They were simply concerned about the fact that schools and some councils are reluctant to display nativity scenes because they might offend members of that nebulous group called “other religions”. Nobody believes this, of course, any more than they believe that Santa is really going to come down the chimney; but repeating the time-honored fable about how Birmingham City Council have banned Christmas is now as much a part of the traditional celebration as holly and ivy.

Still, the cultural clash is quite interesting. These papers which are running “campaigns to save Christmas” (seriously) are not particularly religious. They are annoyed that people are banning cribs and carols (not that anyone is); but they are equally annoyed that people are banning Santa Claus (not that anyone is doing that either.) Santa and babyjesus are both component of our “British” (that is to say, German) Christmas traditions, like mince pies and Dawn French. In fact, the implication behind the question “Is this the most offensive image in England?” is probably “No, of course it isn’t,: there is nothing more innocuous and harmless than a nativity scene, and only silly p.c councilors could think otherwise.”

Madame Tussauds effectively said “The nativity is a secular image: we might as well have some fun with it.” The Vandal said “It isn’t secular: it’s very, very holy.” The local councils and head teachers are supposedly saying “The nativity is a holy Christian image: we had better not display it in case it offends Moslems”; and the papers respond “Don’t be silly, it’s not religious, it’s just part of our English winter festival.”

Have you noticed how it’s always secular people who are worried about offending Moslems? You rarely come across a Moslem claiming to have actually been offended. “Jesus is a prophet of Islam; we respect him very much indeed” is the usual line.

This is not to say that you couldn’t formulate Christmas in such a way as to offend Moslems, if that was what you felt like doing. You’d just press the point that Jesus isn’t merely a “prophet”, but “the Son of God”; and if they failed to take offense at the idea of God fathering a child, you could point out that “Son of God” is a technical term, and what it really means is “Jesus and God are the same person.” That idea is pretty offensive to most monotheists outside the Christian church, and some who claim to be inside it.

Comment: I was about to type “Jesus and Allah are the same person”, but then thought “No, that might be regarded as insensitive: no point in writing an essay about offense and actually giving offense in the course of it.” Am I right in thinking that the word “Allah” is more heavily tabooed than the word “God”, or is that another mis-informed pre-supposition? I have seen evangelicals who think it is cute to refer to God as “Yahweh” in front of orthodox jews. .

That’s the difference, of course. If the person looking at the Mel Gibson photo believes in the Incarnation, then he sees God being sacrificed for the sins of the world: the most holy image possible. If he doesn’t then it’s just some poor guy being torture. If you believe in the Incarnation, then the Nativity scene represents a holy mystery—the point at which God became human. If you don’t, then it’s just some kid.

The doctrine that Jesus was fully divine was only settled as official church doctrine in 325AD, at the Council of Nicea. In this corner, Saint Athanasius, saying that Jesus was God in human form, and if you don’t believe that, you may as well go home and pray to Mithras. In that corner, Arius, saying that is Jesus was fully God, he couldn’t be fully human, and since he definitely was fully human, he couldn’t have been God. (I paraphrase: it was an awfully long time ago.) At some point during the debate, an obscure Bishop from Asia Minor lost his patience and punched Arius on the nose. Theology was evidently a lot more fun in those days.

The formula which the council came up with has come down to as the Nicene creed. It is particularly strange to hear the crucial lines from it, slightly uneasily versified via Latin, trilled out by choirs in shopping centers as part of the babyjesus cult.

“True God of True God
Light of Light Eternal
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb
Very God,
Begotten not created
Oh come let us adore him...”

The Bishop who slapped Arius round the face, was, of course, Saint Nicholas. It seems that even then, he had pretty good idea about who’d been naughty and who’d been nice. Perhaps putting Santa and the Nativity side by side isn’t quite so incongruous after all.

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