Today’s Americans are extraordinarily twee about religion. On the one hand they print ‘In God We Trust’ on banknotes, insist their leaders have a religious belief, and cite ‘the Creator’ as granting the rights of the Constitution — at least 50 per cent say religion is very important to them, compared with 17 per cent in the UK. On the other hand, when it comes to Christmas, they row back. ‘Happy Holidays’ is the only acceptable greeting. Anything more specific might be judged offensive, intrusive, coercive. Jon Sopel, himself of Jewish stock, spotted a banner in Dulles airport, reading: ‘We hope you like our holiday trees.’ They were Christmas trees. ‘Don’t mention the baby Jesus, whatever you do,’ he wrote with amusement.
By contrast, in the UK, Christmas arrives as a commercial onslaught late in October until the name is engulfed by a festival of hedonism, far removed from the discomfort of the Nativity stories. Both as a baby and as an adult, Jesus was a political threat. Three days into Christmas-time each year, the Church’s calendar recalls the massacre of young boys in the area around Bethlehem, dispatched because wise men from a distant land had enquired about a new king who had been born, who would establish a Rule of Justice. Jesus escaped to Egypt, but was later to be executed for exactly the same reason. That should not surprise us. Mixing religion with politics was as unpopular then as it is now. He taught extensively about a new kingdom (inescapably a political term) that was open to all but demanded wholehearted commitment. It would inevitably brook opposition. He saw his own death as a sacrificial self-giving love to effect a new deal between God and humanity.
John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York. This article is an extract from his notebook, available in The Spectator Christmas issue