Chris Bryant: Delve into the Gospels and see how they contradict Christmas traditions

A Political Life

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Tradition! Tradition! Everyone has traditions. Countries, religions, schools. Families, too.

My friends are having a Yuletide row over what Christmas present opening tradition to adopt. One side of the family always had a stocking replete with lesser presents miraculously arrive on each child's bed in the middle of the night, and the moment the children woke up they could dive in, as their main presents were opened later in the morning. The other side of the family, though, had no stockings but overnight a pillowcase stuffed full of all the presents for each child would appear round the Christmas tree – and nothing was to be opened before lunch.

Reconciling these two traditions is apparently proving tough, as the only thing everyone is united on is that at the bottom of the stocking or pillowcase there has to be a satsuma or clementine.

The trouble is that because traditions depend by definition on that notoriously fallible human attribute, memory, they can acquire a life of their own, gaining unintended, unrelated elements like so many barnacles on a ship of the line. Occasionally, they need chiselling off.

Take the King's College Service of Nine Lessons and Carols that was first performed in 1918, broadcast in 1928 and is now replicated in churches across the land. It's all great theology-as-a-comfort-blanket stuff. But, by amalgamating different accounts from three of the gospels (St Mark doesn't include a virgin birth at all), it creates a mythical mish-mash that Matthew, Luke and John (if those were their names) would never have recognised.

In Matthew, for instance, the three wise men visit the newborn baby; Herod massacres the children, and Joseph flees with Mary and the infant Jesus into Egypt. But none of these elements features in Luke who tells a completely different story of the birth of John the Baptist, the arrival of the angel to Mary, Caesar Augustus's census, the stable, the swaddling clothes, the manger and the shepherds – none of which is in Matthew. As for John, his great "in the beginning was the word" poem has not a scintilla of this.

The danger is that the tough reality of the two original stories gets lost in the grand after-the-event theology. For Matthew, Jesus was born into a harsh, frightening world of envy and violence and Joseph threatened to abandon Mary because she was found to be with child while they were just engaged. Luke has Mary shout out that God "hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away".

In this version, there was no room in the inn, and the man who would start his first sermon by proclaiming that the spirit of the Lord was upon him because he had anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor was born in poverty and squalor. Which somehow doesn't quite equate with a "traditional" Christmas.

Few can resist a good Victorian myth

Parliament's collective memory is pretty defective as well. Take one example – the etymology of "toe the line". Every parliamentary guide and MP will tell you that this derives from the two red lines on the carpet in the Commons that are supposedly "two swords' lengths" apart. If a member steps over the line while speaking, he will be told by the Speaker, so the myth goes, to "toe the line". Indeed, we had an instance a couple of weeks ago when John Hemming seemed to be straying all the way to the other side of the House and the Deputy Speaker told him off.

There are several factual problems with this tradition, though. First, while there are occasional instances when members seem to have worn swords in the Chamber, such as when Charles I stormed into the Chamber on 4 January 1642, the general rule has been for centuries that swords had to be left outside (hence the pink ribbons in the members' cloakroom). Ancient usage bars "weapons, decorations, sticks, umbrellas and despatch cases" from the Commons. What is more, none of the drawings, paintings, cartoons or descriptions of the old Commons before the fire of 1834 shows any sign of these red lines.

If anything, the reason for the gap between the two front benches is the same as it was in the original chamber, the old gothic chapel of St Stephen's: it was wide enough to allow the three clergy bearing the cross and two candlesticks to process three abreast to the altar. So since the first instance I can find of a member being told to "toe the line" is in the 20th century, the origins of "toe the line" almost certainly reside in the Navy, not the Commons, and have nothing to do with swords. It seems that the tale is a classic Victorian myth invented when the new Chamber was built and furnished with its first carpet by Messrs Barry and Pugin.

So what do I think about Jacques Chirac?

I put my foot in it this week. Seeing that Jacques Chirac has just been convicted of fraud when he was Mayor of Paris and given a suspended sentence, I tweeted that "I always thought that M Chirac was dodgy". Quick as a flash, @chadnoble found an Early Day Motion I had sponsored in the Commons in 2004: "That this House celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale; notes that, notwithstanding mutual stereotypes of haughty Brits and arrogant Frenchmen, relations between France and the UK have strengthened dramatically in the intervening century; further notes that many Britons enjoy holidays and have holiday homes in France, and that three million French tourists visit the UK every year, spending £694m; welcomes the visit of President Chirac on 18 November; and wishes him bon voyage." My memory's clearly not that good, either. Touché.

twitter.com/ChrisBryantMP

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