A Christmas Story

Dec 19, 2022 4:00:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf remarks on the holiday season as an opportunity for students and educators to learn about religious festivals around the world, as well as its history, inclusivity, and regional significance.

Requiem for Father Christmas—A Right Jolly Old Elf

This is the time of the year when, in pursuit of anodyne safety, a section of international educators goes into linguistic contortion to avoid saying “Christmas” (let alone Rohatsu, Hannukah, Winter Solstice, or Zartosht No Diso) [1].

Druids celebrate the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

Druids celebrate the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge.
(Source: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/druid-wizard-stu-claims-pagans-21098616)

Out of these semantic paroxysms, otherwise rational colleagues may promote things such as Winterfest, Winterval, Winter Festival. Despite having achieved “global competence,” some international educators appear to have forgotten that, for half the world, December is the summer.

I mourn the passing of Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, etc. This benign, jolly, chubby chap (not unlike me) brings children gifts. You would have to be a pretty miserable soul to be offended by Clement Clarke Moore’s version in the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “'Twas the night before Christmas” (1823):

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf ...
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings...
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew...
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,


Father Christmas being jolly

Father Christmas being jolly.
(Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Jonathan_G_Meath_portrays_Santa_Claus.jpg)

The office tradition of gift-giving used to be known as Secret Santa in recognition of the figure’s wholesome generosity. In many education offices, religious (and pagan) associations have led to the metaphorical murder of the legendary Saint Nicholas (270 AD-343 AD)—a martyr to political correctness. His replacement is commonly known as the Secret Snowman, which certainly secularizes the ritual but sustains male hegemony and enforces an implicitly sexist narrative. Where might we ask is Secret Snowwoman? At home, baking mince pies? Should we not avoid gender discrimination entirely? Arise Secret Snow Person?

The implication is that we need to avoid offending those of other faiths or no faith at all as if the word Christmas is pejorative and shockingly unfamiliar. As students wander through the cities of western Europe (actually almost everywhere—perhaps not Pyongyang or Riyadh) is there an assumption that they will be appalled by the displays in shop windows, the lachrymose carols which recall that “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed/The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”? Are they truly likely to be offended by the surrealism of “Deck the Halls”?

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la la la la!
'Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la la la la!
Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la la la la la la!
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la la la la!

—Thomas Oliphant (1862)

The Most Persecuted Religion in the World

At this time of the year, I annoy some colleagues by arguing that we should acknowledge Christmas, invite our students to discuss and interpret this event, and other religious festivals throughout the year. This is something of a CAPA tradition.[2] I believe that ignoring Christmas is a significant omission—a failure to be truly inclusive, to teach what diversity means outside of the US: lost opportunities.

Religious festivals are critical indicators of national and regional diversity, and of profound significance in history. “Protecting” students and colleagues from understanding these realities makes no educational sense; it is the promotion of ignorance.

I am not suggesting that we sing hymns in class, light Hanukkah candles, meditate upon Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment, or mourn the death of the prophet Zoroaster. However, I am suggesting that we enrich curricula by discussing the significance of the major religious festivals in the cities and countries where students study. This involves interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary perspectives from politics, sociology, history, philosophy, literature, and so on.

In western Europe (where most of our students study), Christmas is an ideal occasion on which to contemplate a cluster of significant events. Commercial excess might be used to teach students something of the resistance to the celebration in Puritan America. In 1659, by way of example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony indicated that Christmas celebrations were to be banned, reenacting Oliver Cromwell’s injunction in England 15 years earlier:

By reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas...shall pay of every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county. [3]

This is more than killjoy mentality. It is driven by a desire to weed out excess ritual, associated with Catholicism, and symbolic paganism. Exploring religious conflicts within Christianity reveals profound and persistent impacts upon regional and national politics, and identities.

From another perspective, the birth of Christ offers a reading that has been obscured by the fact that in many spaces Christianity is associated with establishment values. The perilous environment for Jews at the birth of Christ is mirrored in contemporary environments in which to be a Christian may be equally perilous. In a global context, justice and equity is not enjoyed by all Christian communities—a reality that our students should understand. Christian faith is subject to marginalization and persecution in, paradoxically, faith-based countries and those opposed to any religious faith at all. 

The World Watch List (2022), a publication of the Christian research group Open Doors, identifies 50 countries in which Christians are subject to discrimination and persecution. Foremost of these are Afghanistan and North Korea while Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, China, and Qatar also feature. [4] The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank organization, reiterated Open Doors’s research findings:

360 million Christians last year lived in countries where persecution was “significant.” Roughly 5,600 Christians were murdered, more than 6,000 were detained or imprisoned, and another 4,000-plus were kidnapped. In addition, more than 5,000 churches and other religious facilities were destroyed. American Christians talk of persecution, but that is what real persecution looks like (March 2022). [5]

Christians are the most persecuted religious group in our world at this point. This contradicts the assumption that Christianity is the dominant norm. Christmas is surely the time to direct students towards contemplation of a situation largely hidden from the sight of those who choose to worship or not to worship, to believe or not to believe, in privileged security.

Politics and Poetry in the Nativity

A reading of Christmas, based upon symbol and subtext, might draw attention to a political message. The narrative signifies that status and significance should not be measured by wealth or social hierarchy. It inverts norms; the Magi, Kings, or wise men, endure a difficult journey to acknowledge the importance of an obscure baby born in poverty from a marginalized, disadvantaged group. You do not have to believe in the literal event to recognize the subversion of the status quo. This is reflected in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of The Magi” (1927):

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year...
The very dead of winter...
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet...
A hard time we had of it...
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Nativity, Italian, late 1550s

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Nativity, Italian, late 1550s.
(Source: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu/article/the-magi-and-the-manger-imaging-christmas-in-ancient-art-and-ritual-2/)

The story of the birth of Christ offers a radical assault on structures of privilege and power. The Sermon on the Mount draws upon the same principles:

And he...taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5.5 King James Version).

Other events enforce this rhetoric. Luke 7, 37-47 describes Jesus’s response to the kindness of a sinner, assumed to be a prostitute, in contrast to the reaction of Simon, an influential Pharisee [6]:

And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment. And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Simon is affronted by her lowly status: “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” Jesus rejects that notion of social hierarchy. The expression of love transcends convention: “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much...”

Jesus’s engagement with marginalized and powerless people is an expression of radical empathy or active sympathy, the capacity to translate emotion into action. Luke 17:12-13 (KJV), for example, describes the miracle of curing the lepers:

There met him ten men that were lepers...:And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass...they were cleansed.

Matthew 19:13-15 (KJV) describes meeting children, against the wishes of the disciples: 

Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. 

Political and moral implications are clear “many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30, KJV). Outcasts and the powerless have value beyond social norms and material status. Tolerance, understanding, and empathy for the suffering of dispossessed and ordinary people reflect principles of social justice that are critical to the core beliefs of education abroad. 

I think of a secular equivalent: Bertolt Brecht’s extraordinary poem, “Concerning the Infanticide, Marie Farrar” (1922). An impoverished and exploited maid kills her newly-born illegitimate child:

And then she took the body to her bed
And kept it with her there all through the night:
When morning came she hid it in the shed... 
Marie Farrar...convicted, died in
The Meissen penitentiary,
She brings home to you all men's sin.
You who bear pleasantly between clean sheets
And give the name "blessed" to your womb's weight
Must not damn the weakness of the outcast,
For her sin was black but her pain was great.
Therefore, I beg you, check your wrath and scorn
For man needs help from every creature born.

Another version of social justice inspires William Blake’s vision of Jesus in England in “Jerusalem” (1808). The poem begins in religious speculation:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

The Bible says nothing of what happened to Jesus between the ages of 12 and 29, the “unknown years.” One myth places Jesus in England. Blake contrasts the idea of a divine presence with starker, darker, demonic consequences of industrialization:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Out of that conjunction Blake commits to political activism, embedded in the metaphor of building Jerusalem:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

Brecht and Blake reflect two dimensions that emerge from a reading of the Christ story: the need for compassion for the suffering of others and pursuit of social justice. We are not just flesh and blood but encompass ineffable richness that is not dependent on faith but expresses a capacity to love, to feel empathy with lives beyond our own, to act in ways that transcend self-interest.

It is not necessary to be religious to recognize poetic symbolism and moral significance in the story of Christ’s birth, life, and death. It complicates reality. It implies that we are more than the sum of our particles, more than animate dust. We have imagination, dreams, and emotions. We value things we cannot see. We act in ways that are not only of benefit to ourselves, feel empathy with others to whom we have no obvious connection. Our world is more than that which we can see, touch, or count.

I am not proposing that we should teach religious festivals as acts of faith. However, we should not encourage education abroad students to ignore them, nor should we hide significance out of some timorous unease. Christians can learn from Judaism, Jews from Islam, Buddhists from Catholicism, agnostics and atheists may gain insights at many levels from these creeds. They are an integral part of our past, present, and future, signifiers of social dynamics, critical to understanding environments in which we live, teach, and study.

They also demonstrate that wisdom exists beyond what can be seen or counted. We are engaged in endeavors that are at heart transcendent. The poet and painter Max Jacob [7] wrote: “There is only one country, the country of the heart.” That is where we seek to live. It needs no visa. What is required is sensibility, consciousness of worlds beyond us and, at the same time, within us. That is the power of myth, fable, story, or gospel.

There are More Things in Heaven and Earth

An exchange between two study abroad students, recently returned from the University of Wittenberg, is relevant here:

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

In education abroad, we move students into unfamiliar spaces, across borders, and into the self. We should teach students about religious festivals for what they demonstrate about the sociology and diversity of place. But, at the same time, signal that the material world does not constrain all human experience or aspiration.

However, there is a sense in which Christianity contradicts Christmas. Christian intolerance of other Christians has led to grotesque atrocities. Two examples of which there are many more: by the 12th century the dissenting Christian Cathars of Languedoc and southern Europe were flourishing. On July 22nd, 1209, in the Cathar town of Béziers, much of the population, estimated at between 10,000 and 14,500, was massacred by Crusaders operating under papal orders. Subsequently, in the 13th and early 14th centuries the Catholic Church hunted Cathars to extinction. [8] The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France on August 24th, 1572, saw the slaughter of 8,000 Protestants by Catholics in Paris and an estimated 8,000 more in the rest of France. These actions in the name of Christ are in direct contradiction to Christ’s words: “In my Father's house are many mansions” (John 14:2, KJV), a metaphor for inclusion and tolerance. Comedian Lenny Bruce’s observation resonates in this context: “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”

Christmas is a paradoxical time. It is celebrated by mass consumerism, heaving malls and frenzied buying orgies, a distortion of the gifts brought by the Magi to the impoverished Christ. Christmas is, despite these contradictions, perhaps because of the contradictions, a reminder of the potential light beyond darkness and the light within. For some this may be a spiritual experience, but it may also derive from humanist ethics and emotions. There is no necessity to believe in Christ or Christmas to recognize the power of metaphor and myth. We do not believe in the literal existence of the figures we see on the stage or of the characters who live only in words on the page. That does not mean that they are unable to enrich our consciousness, to populate our dreams, to inspire us to seek to be better people.

If we lose sight of promised lands, we wander in deserts, in barren wastes, without direction or hope.



[1] I imagine that you thought I was going to say something about the more obscure festivals. That is why Google exists.

[2] In the unlikely event that you wish to explore this tradition see, by way of example:
https://capaworld.capa.org/december-what-this-month-means (2021)
https://capaworld.capa.org/does-god-like-christmas (2017)
https://capaworld.capa.org/what-happened-to-christmas-or-the-curse-of-political-correctness (2015)

[3] https://www.mass.gov/doc/penalty-for-keeping-christmas/download 

[4] https://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/world-watch-list/ 

[5] https://www.cato.org/commentary/christianity-worlds-most-persecuted-religion-confirms-new-report 

[6] “The Pharisees were influential religious leaders in Palestine around the time of Christ. They became prominent around 200 BC and were still around through the first century. The Pharisees became powerful in Israel and were challenged by Jesus’ claims and miracles.” https://carm.org/miscellaneous-topics/pharisee-at-the-time-of-christ/ 

[7] For information on the life and death of Max Jacob see: https://capaworld.capa.org/making-pariahs-stereotypes-in-education-abroad 

[8] Stephen O’Shea’s The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (2000) offers a comprehensive history.


Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Engagement of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education