Saturday, 14 November 2009

are the Christmas stamps Christian?

There has been much rejoicing in the Christian press in the last couple of weeks with the news that this year’s Royal Mail Christmas stamps will feature the Nativity story. The stamps take images from stained glass windows by artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Dr Christian Baxter greeted the news with the following: ‘a wonderful narration of the Christmas story, through some of the country’s best examples of stained glass’. Well, they may be great examples of stained glass window art, but are they Christian? Do they really reflect the story which is part of the foundation of the Christian faith?

Christmas stamps

I fear these images contribute to the maintenance of a fantasy which is very far from the reality of the story of the birth of Christ and therefore will never really challenge people to engage with what that story is about. The stain glass images reinforce a Christmas sentimentality that makes the story seem like a romantic fairytale. Take for example the portrayal of Mary; Revd Neil Spencer, the vicar of the church from which the image of Mary is taken, comments: ‘What I love about it is that she’s surrounded by angels and cherubim, but she looks like a real person. She reminds everyone that this isn’t just some imaginary, mythical figure, but actually a real woman.’ No she doesn’t. Mary in this image is an idealised Pre-Raphaelite depiction of a white, western European woman not a Semitic young girl from the ancient Near East who has just endured the trauma of a pregnancy outside marriage and child birth. A better image would have been of a young Palestinian mother struggling with a baby in the Bethlehem of today. A Bethlehem surrounded by a wall and barbed wire, patrolled by soldiers and with a population experiencing the tensions and turmoil of occupation. A Bethlehem in which the shepherds would never have got near Mary from their fields because of the barriers that prevent movement between workplace and home. The Bethlehem I experienced when I visited the Holy Land this time last year and wrote about in my blog.

Until we are prepared to depict the Christmas story in ways that connect with the real world and the pain, suffering and mess in the world, we deny the incarnation and reduce the greatest story ever told to a Christmas pantomime. That is why I welcome the bus stop advertising campaign Christmas Starts With Christ organised by ChurchAds.Net. The holy family is portrayed in a traditional nativity scene, but that image is then located in a bus stop surrounded by ordinary people. A thought provoking representation placing the birth of Christ in the everyday world.

nativity 09

1 comment:

Charlie Kosla said...

Agreed, the stamps portray a fantasy which belongs in the Victorian era. However to go totally modern and do an up to date Mary complete with e.g. Israeli wall etc. will not cut ice. A little bit of tradition in the festive season goes a long way in engaging with people's sentimentality. At least it's better than Father Christmas on every stamp! And have you heard that Dundee council have "banned" Christmas.....bless 'em!!!