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Letter: Immigration, injustice, and the other Christmas story

Timothy J. Kloberdanz, a retired professor of anthropology and folklore at NDSU, writes, "based on my re-reading of the New Testament, the full Christmas story is not so idyllic and tranquil. This other story touches on subjects that are both controversial and troubling even today. Among these hot button issues are immigration and injustice."

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Ask Americans to identify a key symbol of the Christmas season and one gets a variety of responses. Christmas trees. Santa Claus. Candy canes. The song “Jingle Bells.” The list is a long one and even includes things like mistletoe, poinsettias, and the Red Ryder BB gun.

Americans who self-identify as “Christian” often cite nativity scenes as a key symbol. Indeed, one sees such displays in churches, homes, and in the snow-covered yards of friends and neighbors.

The figures in a nativity scene tell a story and they typically include the newborn Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the three wise men, and angels. The whole scene seems idyllic and tranquil.

Yet based on my re-reading of the New Testament, the full Christmas story is not so idyllic and tranquil. This other story touches on subjects that are both controversial and troubling even today. Among these hot button issues are immigration and injustice.

Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary had to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register for a Roman census. Upon reaching their destination, the couple was turned away by one innkeeper after another. The only shelter available was a stable. After Jesus was born, Mary placed him in a manger. But the family soon had to flee the Bethlehem area. In fact, they needed to leave the country. An evil king had ordered the killing of all male children under the age of two.

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The Holy Family fled to Egypt and remained there until the evil king’s death. Thus, a foreign country in Africa became a place of refuge. This was no overnight stay. Biblical scholars believe that Jesus and his parents lived in Egypt for as long as four years. To avoid detection, the family had to move frequently and live in various locations. One wonders what would have happened if there had been border walls, IEAs (Immigration Enforcement Agents), or a deportation policy.

Today, when we view the statues in a nativity scene, we sometimes forget that Joseph and Mary and their newborn son were far from home. The family was either on the move or in flight for quite some time.

Curiously, this realization is not forgotten by many immigrants or their descendants who currently live in the United States. My German-Russian grandparents knew what it was like to be “foreign” and “unwanted.” Instead of favoring the song “Silent Night” at Christmas time, they sang the heartbreaking “O Liebste Braut” (O Dearest Bride). The song is sung from the viewpoint of a dejected, desperate Joseph who cannot find room in any inn. Translated into English, this is what he tells his pregnant wife: “O dearest bride, who would think that no one would show mercy to us on this night? How awful we poor ones are treated in this, our sorry plight.”

Among Ukrainian-Americans, Christmas Eve is a colorful and solemn celebration. Elaborate embroidery and Old Country foods cover the dining room table. But there is always something else on the table: straw. This is to remind the celebrants that Jesus and his parents had to stay in a stable on the night of his birth. And straw was their only bedding.

In many Latino communities throughout the U.S., the tradition of “posadas” takes place every December. The participants walk from one home to another, asking if the Holy Family can be given shelter. Instead of mere statues in a nativity scene, this is a folk reenactment that is truly alive and on the move. It is as if the “innkeepers” of today (homeowners) are given a second chance. “Once you scorned us and turned us away. Will you do so again?” The event typically ends with an effusive show of generosity that includes music, singing, hugs, and home-cooked food.

Folk traditions like these help us remember “the other Christmas story”—a story about a family who faced indifference, rejection, and even persecution. This holiday season, let us keep such families uppermost in our hearts and minds.

Timothy J. Kloberdanz is a retired professor who taught anthropology and folklore at North Dakota State University for more than 30 years.  He and his family reside in Fargo.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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