The refugees that Christmas made and how it resonates today

Spare a thought for how Jesus was born into a refugee family

In Summary

• The Christian First Family had a rough beginning before becoming legends

Image: OZONE

With all the stuff going on in the world today, the issue of refugees — in the sense of people who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster — remains at the top of the agenda for many of us.

I have often thought it was fitting for people who celebrate the Christmas holiday to appreciate that after all the drama of the colonial census by the occupying Romans, the eastern star guiding three wise men to a barn in Bethlehem, shepherds watching their flock by night and so on, the next thing that happened was a new family of three fled for their dear lives and became refugees.

Of course, there is all the confusion about the actual day Jesus was born and, when this fleeing happened and how long it took.

Like Elizabeth, the late Queen of England, and other British royals dating back to King George II, it is more probable than not that Jesus had an actual anniversary of the day he was born, and this was not what we now call Christmas, the official celebration.

According to a 2021 article written by historian Jessica Legget: “Researchers have speculated that the Roman Catholic Church chose December 25 because it ties in with the winter solstice and Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the Roman deity Saturn.”

Legget writes that the founders of Christian church co-opted this popular pagan festival and the winter celebrations of other pagan festivals and amalgamated the traditions into one to mark Jesus’ birthday. “However, nobody really knows exactly when Jesus was born.” 

But, I digress, let’s get back to the refugee narrative.

Basically Joseph, Mary and their newborn had to become refugees because, according to one of the stories written about the time, reports of the child’s birth and future significance in the region and elsewhere, had been interpreted by the colonial power and their collaborators to be the first steps in an act of treason.

The USA’s National Public Radio (NPR) reported recently: “As the bombardment of Gaza intensifies, forcing Palestinians to flee their homes, Israel's military is directing them to the territory's southernmost Rafah governorate. 

“There, hemmed in by Israeli forces and the Mediterranean Sea, Palestinians seemingly have only one place to go — across the border into Egypt's Sinai Desert.

“Egypt has rejected allowing an influx from Gaza, citing concerns about the displacement of Palestinians and regional security issues.”

About 2,000 years ago in the era of the Christ child, it would seem the Egyptian authorities had no such qualms about refugees from Palestine.

The Christian First Family, as it were, is said to have remained refugees in Egypt for almost four years. Some scholars suggest that the young family travelled about 2,000km from the time they fled to Egypt to when they got back to their hometown of Nazareth.

In fact, according to the author of the Book of Revelations, variously known as "John the Elder" or “John of Patmos”, who wrote his part of the books that were incorporated into what is now known as the Bible in 96AD, the family stayed in Egypt for 1,266 days, which works out to three years, five months and some days.

But those were very different times and perhaps it would be expecting everyone to be like modern day Uganda.

Uganda, as the UNHCR tells us, has laws that allow refugees freedom of movement, the right to work, to establish a business, to own property and access national services, including primary and secondary education, as well as health care. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up, our neighbour to the west had a multitude of problems, including an eight-year reign of terror by a murderous military dictator from whom many educated Ugandans fled.

Many of these sought and found refuge mainly in Tanzania and Kenya. Many of those who fled to Kenya were professionals, such as teachers and doctors, and that would account for many people of about my age having had Ugandan teachers at their schools and having been treated by exiled Ugandan medical personnel.

So as you make merry or however you celebrate the reason for the season, spare a thought for those who have had to flee their homes.

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