Type to search

The Simple, Clear, And Still Radical Meaning Of The Christmas Story

Editor's Blog Featured Post Memo Pad

The Simple, Clear, And Still Radical Meaning Of The Christmas Story


The celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is a significant event for everyone raised in Western cultures, whether or not we happen to share the Christian faith – so meaningful that the Christmas holiday has been seized for partisan dispute, with even the most profane and irreligious political figures pretending to defend its purity.

These characters complain of a supposed “war on Christmas,” swearing to impose their own customs and even specific greetings on the entire population of the nation, which was founded on freedom from religious coercion of any kind. This year, the self-styled Christian warriors obsess over the Starbucks seasonal coffee cup, the latest proof that their protests have descended into parody.

Still, these ferocious displays of piety beg a deeper and more serious question. What is the real message of the Christmas story in our time?

It is a story, not a history, as scholars have observed in noting that the Biblical accounts as set down by Luke and Matthew differ in salient ways. But the narrative details of religious allegory need not distract anyone from the message, except those who demand that we interpret Scripture as literal truth, with intent to punish.

It is the story of a child born to a carpenter and his wife, the working class of ancient Judea, who lived under the rule of a distant dictatorial regime and its local enforcers — the one percent of their time. Joseph and Mary were homeless and in at least one version, they were refugees from political oppression. Rejected by society, they were driven into a manger, the equivalent of a cardboard shelter, where Jesus was born among the animals.

And it is a story easy to imagine unfolding today, in a Bronx homeless shelter or a camp tent on a Greek island. Oblivious politicians assure us that we need not concern ourselves with such people and that we can, in good conscience, turn away even children under five years of age for the sake of our own comfort and safety — even as they constantly assure us of their Christian morality.

The story of Christmas is not a political parable but an allegory of light brought into a dark and suffering world, on a date that coincides not accidentally with the winter solstice. Its newborn prophet is a harbinger of divine love for all, most emphatically including the sinners, the impious, the unclean, the unaccepted, the foreigner, the stranger, and the impoverished.

A true appreciation of the Christmas story can only grow from those fundamental insights, not from indignant ranting about paper coffee cups and greeting cards.

Its teaching is straightforward and clear and in the most benign sense radical: Bless the poor, the homeless, the workers, all those destitute and hungry, and especially the infants, children, and mothers. Treat them not with suspicion or hostility or meanness, but with kindness and generosity. Support every effort, public and private, to relieve the privations of humanity, both here and across the world. Cherish every child as your own, whatever their religion or race or nationality.

It is a message so simple that everyone — even Christians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Chris Christie — should be able to understand.

So Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And peace be with you.

Photo: Jorge Franganillo via Flickr

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

  • 1


  1. Mudhooks December 24, 2015

    And the fact is that, rather than having been forced to shelter in a stable as we know it, the family were actually sheltered within the house, in probably the warmest part, the biblical-era version of the guest room.

    The fact was that they were given shelter when they needed is, not turned away as some “Christians” would have us do, today. They were welcomed in to the warmth of the home of a stranger… As it should be.

    1. Leftout December 26, 2015

      There were no christians back then anyway till a few days s later, all the graciousness was extended through humanist principles derived from decent Semites of the region .

  2. bcarreiro December 25, 2015

    Oblivious to their own nature because greed provides major incentives and to think they are the reason for the season. Not my cup of tea.

  3. joeham1 December 25, 2015

    What a nice distorted story. Because the right doesn’t want to let terrorists in the country to kill us, that would deny children coming in too. Which then would be against the Christmas message. What a sick fu#* to twist the message that way.

    1. Marilyn December 25, 2015

      No one has advocated letting in terrorists to kill us. There is a huge difference between terrorists and desperate people who have left behind their worldly goods to escape a despotic government and militants, both of whom would kill them. Chris Christie has already said that he would not let a child in. A high percentage of all of the refugees are children so who is twisting the story?

      1. joeham1 December 25, 2015

        There is no way to figure out the background of any of the refugees. Any one of them could be a terrorist. There is a huge difference between terrorists and desperate people, but we have no way to figure it out. The right wants to stop them from coming in the country in the name of security and the left wants to let them in the country in the name of humanity. And of course the left demonizes the right for being racist, or insensitive, regardless of the danger. Every debate by the left is always turned into something sick. This country is finished

        1. johninPCFL December 25, 2015

          Yet Cubans can arrive and are welcomed by the right with no background checks at all. Apparently even though they foment revolution everywhere in the world, to the right-wing they’re OK.

          1. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            Cubans? Really? What the heck does that have to do with it? Besides Obama wants to let everyone in! If he didn’t a deal to close the border would have already happened

          2. johninPCFL December 25, 2015

            Well, yeah, if the GOP would actually DO anything. But they’re content to just run out the clock.

          3. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            There is nothing the GOP can do that Obama would agree on. He has no negotiation skills and he will executive order his way into the next disaster. Of course his puppets will agree.

          4. johninPCFL December 26, 2015

            Total crap and you know it. Every time the president agrees to an old GOP proposal, the GOP leaders scream their heads off that it’s a Communist idea. ACA? Yeah it was a Heritage Foundation proposal, but now that the president likes it, it can’t possibly be any good. GWB signs an agreement to leave Iraq by 2014 but when the president abides by it, it can’t possibly be any good. Budget caps? Yeah, a GOP idea but since the president was abiding by them, the GOP has to break them now.

          5. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            The aca as it is was not a heritage foundation proposal. You mace that up. The agreement to leave Iraq in 2014 was with a status of forces agreement and of course Obama didn’t want any troops and look at the mess he created now. When Bush left office Iraq was stable. Leaving no forces has screwed Iraq. And your so unhinged on your learned talking points you never searched to find the truth. Do yourself a favor, start understanding that both parties have almost ruined the country. If Trump or Hillary wins, we’re totally screwed

        2. Leftout December 25, 2015

          You said it! The Syrian ISIS stated
          Clearly that they would intermingle with the refugees and cause mayhem. These are not your everyday refugees or the early immigrants that came into this country from Germany, UK, Poland , Italia, and many other lands , these people came for opportunity to give and not take from a gracious land.

          1. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            The far left nut bags say the right is racist because some don’t want the syrian refugees in the country. They make a false issue out of everything. Their dishonesty is disgusting. They want to act like they care about the syrian refugees and they know some of these people will be terrorists. But like one of these morons said “Americans are killing Americans everyday with guns” like that justifies letting terrorists in the country. Imagine how they will kick and scream when they find out one of the refugees are their new neighbor!

          2. Polana December 25, 2015

            Would Christianity exist today if Egyptians turned away Joseph and Mary?? After all they were refugees so was baby Jesus.. Today some politicians just prefer to keep refugees away – no matter what. What would become of Mary and Joseph if they were denied the entry (no matter whether they have money or not) and the family parish in the desert??
            Merry Christmas.

          3. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            Mary and Joseph have nothing to do with it. Completely different circumstances. Anyone would agree to help of the refugees. We could pay for them to settle somewhere. ISIS has promised to infiltrate the refugees. To allow a terrorist in that way doesn’t make sense.

            Merry Christmas

          4. Leftout December 25, 2015

            It is only a security issue, no xenophobia or racism. As the left is trying to portray this . If another tragic episode will occur I am sure we will be rounding them up as they did in France . What really is upsetting is the outrageous silence from the Moslem community .,,,, but as someone stated : the Moslems are no t allowed to question the doctrines of their Islam or they are Infidels, if this is true , then they do not have a right to be in the US and should be all deported .

          5. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            The biggest issue for the puppets of Obama is they really believe what he says. They believe that if we somehow are nicer to ISIS they will be nicer to us. The deal Obama made with Iran is the perfect example of this. If we are nice they may not make a nuclear weapon. That line of thought had brought us to one of the most dangerous times this world has ever seen. Obama and the far left haven’t figured out that these people will not stop until we’re all dead. The only solution is to kill them before they kill us. Instead the moronic left wants to talk about him control or the poor refugees and how un-American it is not not allow them in our country. A 6 year old would understand what the decision has to be.

          6. Kevin Quillen December 25, 2015

            Actually, I think the far left nut bags say the right-wing is racist because the conservatives support disenfranchising black voters with their new voter suppression laws. The conservatives blame the Great GOP recession on poor people who couldn’t have caused it. The conservatives blame the Black victims of police brutality rather than the Confederate flag-waving officers. The conservatives are the leaders and members of extremist anti-government and Neo-Nazi groups. The conservatives are the ones targeting immigrants with hate speech. The conservatives are shutting down services to low-income families. There are dozens of factual reasons why the right-wing defines itself as racist, so we all know exactly what to expect from the right-wing and all the other Supremacists when it comes to the Syrian refugee issue.

          7. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            The far left says the far right is racist because the sheep are told to say that. They know it’s not true but it sounds good. Disenfranchising minority voters is also a moronic left wing puppet show. To require an ID to vote helps eliminate voter fraud. The proof is when the right offered to supply ID’S that want good enough for the left. I don’t believe the right wants to suppress anyone’s vote. We need to make sure there are not people voting who shouldn’t and people voting more them once like we saw in Ohio. Btw the anti government groups are all led but the left. Black lives matter, and all the mayors of the sanctuary cities

          8. Publicolus December 26, 2015

            We already have laws that require ID to vote, so it’s disingenuous to falsely claim rconservatives only want to “require an ID to vote”. The truth that racist righties can’t admit: The ID can’t just be a photo ID and it can’t just be a government-issued ID – the new voter suppression laws reject all but a very few of them. Nearly all voter fraud is committed by absentee ballot, less than 5% is done in person, so the photo-ID law is useless unless the real goal is blatant racial targeting. Don Yelton? Jim Greer?

          9. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            You’ve been lied to. All anyone wants is to make sure people who are eligible to vote can vote and people who aren’t don’t vote. The racist talking points by the far left is their way to make you ok with voter fraud. In some states an ID is not required. Everyone should be given an ID then only the people eligible will vote.

          10. Publicolus December 27, 2015

            I would suggest you’ve been lied to if you believe photo-ID will have any effect on the vast majority of voter fraud, which is by absentee ballot. The only thing the GOP’s new Jim Crow laws will do is prevent minorities from voting, which is apparently what several GOP officials already admitted publicly was the original intention. The question we’re left with now is which Republicans are lying about it.

          11. joeham1 December 27, 2015

            No one admitted that was their intention. What you wackos forget is that you need an ID for almost everything. Of course it a must for voting to make sure you eligible to vote. The voter suppression crap crap is the left wing nuts using the race card like they always do. If everyone has an ID the system will of course work better. To argue otherwise and say it’s racially motivated is total crap and you know it. It’s sickening to hear the left call everyone a racist for any reason. The right is absolutely no more racist then the left. But because you sick people look for any reason to call the side you don’t agree with namea you think it helps your position. You are a horrible person.

          12. Publicolus December 29, 2015

            You’re spouting nonsense. We already show ID to vote and voter fraud is nearly non-existent so your new minority-punishing prohibitions are completely unnecessary. Republicans Yelton and Greer both said that your GOP voter suppression laws were deliberately meant to block Blacks from voting Democratic, why would they say such a thing if it wasn’t true? Third, conservatives may not all be racists, but all the White Supremacists are certainly on the far right (See KKK, Stormfront, Koch Party, et al). Those are the facts. You’re in denial.

          13. Marilyn December 26, 2015

            I don’t believe the members of ISIS are stupid. Why would anyone with terrorist intent want to claim to be a Syrian refugee and go through the vetting process which can take 18 to 24 months, when that person could apply for a tourist visa, buy a plane ticket, and simply enter the country as a tourist? I have traveled to the countries reputed to have the most rigorous visa application requirements. The most complicated was Russia’s, but I was able to complete all of the paperwork, send my passport and application to the agency handling the details, and get my passport back with visa attached in less than a month. Aside from the length of time required for the vetting process, the long overland trek or the journey by sea in a non-seaworthy little boat would surely deter any terrorist with an ounce of brains when he could simply come by plane. And as far as refugees as neighbors is concerned, I have been thinking that my house is too large for just one person and could easily house a family. Besides the pleasure of helping someone in desperate circumstances, there would also be the fun of irritating any RW nuts in the neighborhood.

          14. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            Why is every issue hijacked by the far left and turned into a left against right issue. You don’t believe members of ISIS are stupid so when they said they would try to send terrorists in through the syrian refugees you don’t think they really will right? You will have one of the refugees live with you to irritate a right wing nut? Do realize how petty you sound right? So if they let these people in and one of them blows up a theater or mall or whatever and let’s say 1,000 people die. Would it then be a bad to have let them in?

          15. Marilyn December 26, 2015

            Since the phrase “far left nut bags” had already entered the discussion, I don’t believe that I hijacked the discussion and made it a left against right issue. The main objective of taking in a refugee family would not be to irritate the RW (although it is a lot of fun as evidenced by your rapid outraged reply). The objective would be to act as a humanitarian. I would not approve of blowing up malls, theaters, or anywhere else. We don’t need refugees to do that as there are plenty of natural born Americans who seem willing to perform those acts. Besides, if someone living in my home were stockpiling guns and bombs, I think I would be aware. My house is roomy, but not that roomy.

          16. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            I know this may be hard for you to understand, but there are far left and far right nut bags. Your logic is strange saying there are plenty of natural born Americans that will perform terrorist acts. We don’t need refugees to do it? So let me ask you this. If the syrian refugees come and some of them kill several thousand people, was it a mistake to let them in?

          17. Marilyn December 26, 2015

            Your logic is strange. The number of Syrian refugees now numbers close to 5 million yet there is not one instance of any of them being involved in terrorism. Of those applying for refugee status through the UN, 67% are children under the age of 12. Hindsight is always going to be better than foresight so if one of them ever becomes a terrorist, you can have the satisfaction of saying, “I warned the lefties about that.” I think it is improbable but not impossible that they will be terrorists, but I would still rather be on the side of compassion and inclusion than on the side of hatred and exclusion. There are many things in this world far more frightening than refugees (and I do include those natural born Americans who have committed more acts of terror than the foreign-born variety).

          18. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            My logic is strange? ISIS said they will infiltrate the syrian refugees coming here. I believe them. Your compassion logic ignores the danger. Then you twist it even more with a statement about home grown citizen killers as if that’s why it’s ok to bring them in. You lack an understanding of reality. We can be compassionate and house and feed them in another country. The real reason you want them here has nothing to do with compassion. You want them here because the right doesn’t. Some of you will actually say the right is racist because the right doesn’t think the syrian refugees should be allowed here considering ISIS said they with infiltrate. A fight with the right supercedes the logic of not allowing possible terrorists in our country. Foregoing security and logic to demonize the right isn’t a solution.

          19. Marilyn December 26, 2015

            Other than the fact that all of the hateful rhetoric from the right simply provides ammunition for ISIS recruiting, I could not care one whit what the right thinks or if the right thinks at all. You seem to imply that you know a great deal about my motivation and you know nothing at all about me. You seem to put a lot of stock in what ISIS says. If they intended to infiltrate, why would they announce their plans so that the right could try to block them? Why not keep infiltration plans secret, the better to accomplish them?

          20. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            There is no hateful rhetoric from the right. ISIS, has let it be known what they intend to do. There isn’t a way to help or hurt their recruiting. It’s completely native to believe any different. I don’t know you but your comments tell everyone what you think. Your a divider and your only criticism is against the right because that’s what it’s like being part of a political party. What Obama says and believes you say and believe. You have been taught to hate the other political party and that’s your focus. It’s ok though because the right does it too. It’s a sick way to live and there are no solutions that way

        3. Kevin Quillen December 25, 2015

          There’s also no way to figure out if the citizens living among us in America are terrorist, either, but we are forced to sell them weapons of war without question and we are prevented from even having a rational conversation about why that is.

          1. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            Citizens living here wanting to kill us is a different subject. Making sure that terrorists can’t buy guns here is important. Again, we’re never ever getting rid of guns. There’s over 300 million of them. It also has nothing to do with letting terrorists in the country.

          2. Publicolus December 26, 2015

            Who said we must get rid of guns? It’s a false dilemma to suggest the only possible choices are daily mass shootings or the total confiscation of 300 million firearms. Think Golden Mean. Besides, the ISIS terrorists are apparently minting their own official Syrian passports, so they don’t need to hide among the refugees.

          3. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            They will try to get in with the syrian refugees , but that’s ok because they can always get in across the southern border if that won’t work. Our government refuses to secure the border. The only way to stop mass shootings is to first of all enforce the existing gun laws and immigration laws. Next stop funding to sanctuary cities, and close the border. Also closing the gun show loop holes will help. Set the syrian refugees up in another country. All those things combined will mane a difference.

          4. Publicolus December 26, 2015

            All the al-Qaeda documents we recovered say that they all planned to cross over from Canada, like 5 of the 9/11 hijackers did. http://tinyurl.com/j8zq4m4. Craven conservatives are so desperate to build a Mexican Berlin Wall to punish immigrants in general that they don’t seem to care that it’s along the wrong border to stop terrorists.

          5. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            All the AL Quada documents did not say they were crossing from Canada. Someone made that up. A country without secure borders is not a country. Another radical left wing talking point. If we secure the border we’re punishing immigrants? Did you know If you cross the border illegally into Mexico they throw you in jail? There is absolutely no reason to not secure the border. For national security alone it needs to be done. Of course the left turns it into the evil right just wants to hurt people. Complete nonsense!

          6. Publicolus December 26, 2015

            You mean Michael Chertoff?
            Nabil al-Marabhm, Ahmed Ressam, Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Maizar, Abdel Hakim Tizegha, and Hani Abd al-Rahim al-Sayegh all crossed the Canadian border to enter the US.

    2. johninPCFL December 25, 2015

      Since 2000 “the terrorists” have so far killed roughly the same number of Americans as are killed every MONTH by other Americans with guns (including the twin towers.)
      Or how about this: “the terrorists” in San Bernardino killed the same number of Americans as are killed by other Americans every TWO DAYS, so they were really just a day ahead of schedule?

      1. joeham1 December 25, 2015

        What the heck are you talking about guns, when the issue is terrorism. There are over 300 million guns in this country. There isn’t a way to get rid of them. Get over it. Your argument is completely ignorant that Americans kill Americans so why worry about terrorists! (which is essentially what your saying) that way of looking at it shows your lack of understanding of what these terrorist intend to do. They want us dead! Everyone of us. You too! When Iran gets the bomb they will use it. Regardless of anything we do they want us dead. If you aren’t too ignorant you could drop the anti fun thing and focus on the real issue.

        1. johninPCFL December 25, 2015

          Yeah, yeah. They want us dead, but you’re 10,000 times more likely to be shot and killed by your neighbor. Try and focus on the nearest, biggest threat.

          1. joeham1 December 25, 2015

            Your warped. Because there are other threats don’t worry about letting terrorists in. Think much?

          2. johninPCFL December 26, 2015

            I just don’t buy into your chicken-little idiocy. I evaluate my situation and act accordingly. I don’t run around screaming at the sky like you do.

          3. joeham1 December 26, 2015

            Chicken little? Do you know what these people are doing all over the middle east? You evaluate your situation? What the heck are you talking about. The whole world has evaluated the situation and it’s not good. No one is screaming at the sky, but you can’t be that brain dead to think that the incompetency of our government hasn’t lead to ISIS growing and becoming more of a threat everyday. I bet you bought into the crap that we either do a horrible deal with Iran or we have to go to war. No other choices right?

  4. Kevin Quillen December 25, 2015

    Joseph wasn’t poor. That might be the popular narrative, but when you read the “begat” section in the Book of Matthew, you see Jesus was the great (x12) grandson of King David. David’s son King Solomon was the wealthiest guy in the Middle East. He was the Mac-daddy of tax collectors (1Kings 10:14) and was said to have diamond mines, so it is much more probable that Joseph’s extended family was extremely wealthy. The only reason Joseph and Mary stayed in a manger at the Inn is because the entire rest of Joseph’s 1% wealthy family arrived first and took all the good rooms – Mary was pregnant and slowed them down.

  5. Kevin Quillen December 25, 2015

    Michelangelo was a “painter” who happened to have as many as 500 employees working for him. Joseph may have been a “carpenter” in the same way.

  6. oldtack December 25, 2015

    8 Bozo posts from 8 mindless Bibbos

  7. Hutchbilly December 25, 2015

    I am a pentecostal Christian who avoids the lying GOP like the plague. The problem of the Conason story is simple. If you do not believe in life after death, a life worth having, then the story of God who became man so that His death might give us all opportunity for life eternal is a fairy tale. Don’t get me wrong, I love Conason’s writings, but he sorely misunderstands Christianity, which is not a religion that so many Christians live, but a relationship with Jesus, who still lives. The point is what do you choose to believe. We all can live life according to the Beatitudes but if I accept Jesus as Lord and you don’t and Conason is right, then we both lived a good life that benefited others, and at death our existence ends as does all other life. But if I’m right, you miss life eternal and I don’t. Do you really think we were created as the only creatures capable of worshipping someone greater than themselves and having self awareness by evolution alone? (No, I don’t agree with teaching creationism in public schools) What are you willing to believe, and what beliefs are you willing to submit to. Despite all the side tracks in the Bible, it’s main theme is a God calling to His creations to come home to Papa, even if those who say they were with Papa all along resent it. (The Prodigal Son story). And yes, I will be voting for Hillary (my choice) or Bernie, whoever is the nominee.

    1. Kevin Quillen December 25, 2015

      500 years before the Jesus story of the Prodigal Son there was the very similar story of the Buddhist prodigal Son. Have you read it?

      1. Hutchbilly December 26, 2015

        No, but there are numerous similar stories to biblical stories, like multiple cultures have a flood story similar to Noah.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.