The President of Italy has deemed that schools in this season must display models of the Nativity of Jesus, not just any secular snowy scene. She said Nativity scenes are important to the nation’s cultural roots, and Italy must not give way to non-religious displays just because there are people of other religions and cultures now living in Italy.
Francis of Assisi, and nationalist politics
There are two points of Italian resonance here. One is that, indeed, legend has it that displays of the Nativity became popular following the example of St Francis in Greccio, Italy, where he made the first display in 1223, with live animals (ox and ass), a manger full of hay and even, some said, a live baby put in the manager during the Mass. So, this is indeed deep in Italian cultural memory. From St Francis’ dramatic reenactment, the custom spread throughout most of Europe, and further.
The second is that President Meloni was voted in on a right-wing national-populist manifesto. Her voters deplore the influx of migrants into Italy and fear cultural dilution. So they would applaud this visible intervention to support ancient national customs. Utilising hostility to immigration to attack multiculturalism has been in the playbook of right-wing politicians for some decades: Mrs Thatcher spoke against multiculturalism; so does Putin.
The UK’s festival of Santa and shopping
So how are we doing on this debate in multicultural England of the twenty-first century? Here in Ashford town centre, it is hard to spot any connection of seasonal festivity with the Nativity story from the gospels. True – blink, wink – the lights are up both near the shops and on many suburban houses. Inside shops, lots of glittery goods and stuff (plastic or inflatables) coloured Santa-red. At one arcade, there is a line of children to greet Santa himself, clothed in red velvet. Of course, this is really the festival of Santa and shopping.
I looked at the collection of cards for sale in four shops: they are metres high with mostly red and green, or glittery snow and seasonal depictions, many forcing me to choose whether I am sending to Grandpa, uncle, daughter, niece etc. Not a Nativity scene in sight until I spotted just one with the Three Kings in opulent Eastern robes in WH Smiths. Waterstones has a revolving stand with only environmental cards.
Following the market
When I reported to my daughter about this lack of the Nativity theme, she said “They have to follow the market. Most people don’t buy Nativity cards these days as they are often given to people who may be of another faith or non-religious.”
A similar trend of following the market is now visible in bookstores. Suppose you want to give a godchild, aged about seven, an easy-reading picture book on the Nativity (or on any other bible story). These are now no longer available in the main bookshops. The five or six Christian bookshops in Kent have long closed. So one turns to Waterstones. The children’s section is capacious, filled with many beautifully illustrated children’s books for that age group. Amid about ten metres of floor-to-ceiling display, there is a bare half metre on the floor level of illustrated books on religion, one or two Usborne illustrated bibles sharing space with books for the same age group on Islam (Eid craft activities), on Hindu deities, and Buddhist stories. Above these is Philosophy for eleven-year-olds. Okay – we get that Waterstones is following a politically correct multicultural curriculum on the place of religion.
Illustrations ethnically biased
But a closer look at the picture bibles found two of them failing on anti-racist grounds. Those pictures, whether from Old Testament or New Testament, did not show racially diverse faces, even for the three wise men/kings. From early medieval times, Balthazar was named as one of the kings and he came from Africa. It was a while before artists and Nativity scenes picked this up. But in the last 150 years, especially in churches and schools outside Europe, Nativity scenes have joyously depicted this racial diversity. They were a bit slower on the complexions of angels. When my children were small, we struggled to find any pictures of darker-complexioned angels with Afro-hair (or mermaids, for that matter).
So what are we multi-culturalists to do? Dump the lot as being covert racism or religion propagating ethno-nationalism? Just raise our eyes to the other shelves with a huge choice of illustrated books that inspire children with life lessons. No need to bother with the poor choices on religion.
But, for better or for worse, children in the UK will still almost certainly encounter the Nativity story, even if it is the only story they know from Christianity. Some (many?) Christmas school shows might avoid it. But there are still many church schools in which the Nativity reenactment is a key seasonal event. Almost all parish churches (Anglican and Roman Catholic) will have placed a crib somewhere prominent.
Nativity in song
The airwaves are also full of carols. Many of these jingles now are for the Santa fest (Jingle Bells) and I must admit I prefer shopping to these rather than to tinny versions of familiar carols. Many British adults are involved in carol services. It is reported that over two million of us sing in choirs. So the Nativity story is thriving in song, if not on the Christmas cards.
What would St Francis say? I don’t think he would agree with Meloni that the Nativity scenes should be a display of the strength of Italian culture. He was a universalist who went to Egypt. He was aware that kings, wisemen and manual labourers like shepherds have different complexions. Above all, as he rocked the baby in his arms in front of that crowd at Greccio, he was proclaiming that this Nativity story has a universal meaning about human and family love. So let’s carry on singing carols in England—pity about the Christmas cards.