“Merry Christmas”, a seasonal greeting dating back in 1534 when Bishop John Fisher was the first on record to write it. Since then across the English-speaking world, Merry Christmas became the festive greeting to mark the winter festive season. Although it marks a single day, the greeting relates to an entire season from Christmas Eve to the 12th night (eve of the epiphany). The season simulates the process of leading to the birth, circumcision and the baptism of Jesus. Like all births, there is an essential joy in the process, which is why in the middle of it there is the calendar change of the year, to mark more clearly the need for renewal. At the darkest time of the year, for the Northern hemisphere the anticipation of life and lights to come soon. Baby Jesus becomes an image of piety immortalised in numerous mangers in cities around the world.
The meaning is primarily religious dating back to when faith was the main compass of moral judgment. In fact, the celebrations were the last remnants of the old religion before the Romans established Christianity as the main faith. The new religion brought some changes, but it retained the role of moral authority. What is right and wrong, fair and unfair, true and false, all these questions were identified by men of faith who guided people across life’s dilemmas. There is some simplicity in life that very difficult decisions can be referred to a superior authority, especially when people question their way of living and the social injustice they experience. A good, faithful person need not to worry about these things, as the greater the suffering in this life, the greater the happiness in the afterlife. Marx in his introduction to Hegel’s philosophy regarding religion said, “Die Religion ist das Opium des Volkes”, or religion is the opium of the people. His statement was taken out of context and massively misquoted when the main thrust of his point was how religion could absorb social discontent and provide some contentment.
Faith has a level of sternness and glumness as the requirement to maintain a righteous life is difficult. Life is limited by its own existence, and religion, in recognition of the sacrifices required, offers occasional moments for people to indulge and embrace a little bit of happiness. When religious doctrine forgot happiness, people became demoralised and rebellious. A lesson learned by those dour looking puritans who banned dancing and singing at their own peril! Ironically the need to maintain a virtuous life was reserved primarily for those who were oppressed, the enslaved, the poor, the women, many others deemed to have no hope in this life. The ones who lived a privileged life had to respond to a different set of lesser moral rules.
People, of course, know that they live in an unjust society regardless of the time; whether it is an absolute monarchy or a representative republic. Regardless of the regime, religion was there to offer people solace in despair and destitution with the hope of a better afterlife. Even in prisons the charitable wealthy will offer a few ounces of meat and grain for the prisoners to have at least a festive meal on Christmas Day. Traditionally, employers will offer a festive bonus so that employees can get a goose for the festive meal, leaving those who didn’t to be visited by the ghosts of their own greed, as Dickens tells us in a Christmas carol. At that point, Dickens concerned with dire working conditions and the oppression of the working classes subverts the message to a social one.
By the time we move to the age of discovery, we witness the way knowledge conflicts with faith and starts to question the existence of afterlife…but still we say Merry Christmas! There is a recognition that the message now is more humanist, social and even family focused rather than a reaffirmation of faith. So, the greeting may have remained the same, but it could symbolise something quite different. If that is the case, then our greeting today should mean, the need to embrace humanity to accept those around us unconditionally, work and live in the world fighting injustices around. “Merry Christmas” and Speak up to injustices. Rulers and managers come and go; their oppression, madness and tyranny are temporary but people’s convictions, collectivity and fortitude remain resolute.
Christmas is meant to be a happy time full of joy, wonder and gifts. Lights in the streets, cheerful music in the shops, a lot of good food and plenty of gifts. This is at least the “official” view; which has grown to become such an oppressive event for those who do not share this experience. There are people who this festive season live alone, and their social isolation will become even greater. There are those who live in abusive relationships. There are children who instead of gifts will receive abuse. There are people locked up feeling despair; traditionally in prisons suicide rates go rocket high at the festive season. There are those who live in such conditions that even a meal is a luxury that they cannot afford every day. There are who live without a shelter in cold and inhuman conditions. These are people to whom festivities come as a slap in the face, in some cases even literal, to underline the continuous unfairness of their situation.
Most of us may have read “the little match girl” as kids. A story that let us know of the complete desperation of those people living in poverty. A child, like the more than a million children every year that die hoping until the very end. The irony is that for many millions of people around the world conditions have not changed since the original publication of the story back in mid-19th century. During this Christmas, there will be a child in a hospital bed, a child with a family of refugees crossing at sea, or a child working in the most inhuman conditions. Millions of children whose only wish is not a gift but life. The unfairness of these conditions makes it clear that “Merry Christmas” is not enough of a greeting. So, either we need to rebrand the wish or change its meaning!
The Criminology Team would like to wish “Social Justice” for all; our colleagues who fight for the future, our students who hope for a better life, our community that wishes for a better tomorrow, our world who deals with the challenges of the environment and the pandemic. Diogenes the Cynic used to carry a lantern around in search of humans; we hope that this winter you have the opportunity (unlike Diogenes) to find another person and spend some pleasant moments together.