A Very British Christmas. What images does that phrase conjure up in your head? For many of us, the idea of A Very British Christmas equates to the promise of the annual Strictly Come Dancing special, or the arrival of Pret’s Christmas sandwich range.
Of course, for decades, Christian commentators have bemoaned the commercialisation of Christmas. For Christians, Christmas starts with story of Jesus Christ’s birth; the Saviour of the world is born into a hostile and uncertain environment to bewildered parents. This story seems to clash awkwardly with the excess and indulgence that dominates modern proceedings.
This year though, four UK Christian denominations are challenging us to rethink what a British Christmas should mean today. A Very British Nativity is a film that brings these two worlds together through a modern retelling of Jesus’ arrival. The twist is that, instead of ending up in Bethlehem, parents Mary and Joseph decide to seek asylum in the UK. A Very British Christmas indeed.
The film sheds light on the experiences of British asylum seekers who encounter the ‘hostile environment’ the Government has created in the hope of reducing net migration to the UK. It’s a humorous re-imagining; three wise men rock up on Micro-Scooters and get taken in by immigration enforcement, but it is ultimately intended to highlight the degrading and harsh treatment experienced by the UK’s asylum population. Their shared experiences make the story about a Middle Eastern family being forced to seek refuge in a stable seem like an eerily feasible possibility in modern Britain.
It was inspired by the story of a young woman called Ayana, 26, who left her home country of Eritrea over eleven years ago. Since arriving in the UK in 2008 Ayana has experienced homelessness and physical abuse, and even had her temporary accommodation withdrawn after the death of her child, who tragically died shortly after being born. She now lives in London with her a volunteer host, who offered her a spare room through Housing Justice’s refugee hosting scheme. Ayana (not her real name) has kindly given us permission to share a little of her story with you:
“The reason I left Eritrea was because of my religion; I was imprisoned for two weeks there because of my Pentecostal Christian faith. After my parents died, I didn’t have anyone else who could support me in Eritrea, and I didn’t want to stay there.
In the UK you can practice your religion freely, and they accept you the way you are. I was really hopeful when I first came to the UK, I wanted to become a nurse. I didn’t think I would come to the UK and be homeless, and hungry, sleeping on the floors of spare rooms.
I slept outside and in night shelters and bedsits for seven years, my left leg no longer moves because of the cold. At one point, I was five months pregnant and sleeping in the park; it was so cold and I couldn’t move my hand. I said to my friend ‘I feel like I am dying’.
When I eventually told a charity I was pregnant they said they would find somewhere for me to live. I lived in Government accommodation before and after I had my baby, who died shortly after being born.
After I lost my baby I received a letter from the Home Office telling me I had to leave my accommodation within two weeks; because I was no longer entitled. I didn’t have anyone, and didn’t have anywhere to go. I was c-sectioned and recovering and no-one came to help me, I was sick and no-one helped.
I just want to be safe; the home office doesn’t care – they treat you like everyone else, because they don’t know. They don’t provide any transport. I’ve been here for nine years and I’ve only just started having English lessons. You can’t work, you can’t learn, I don’t know how they expect me to live. They don’t even ask you how you are.”
There’s a certain degree of scepticism regarding the exact details of Jesus’ birth – was it in a stable, an inn, or a one-bed flat in Stratford?
There’s a certain degree of scepticism regarding the exact details of Jesus’ birth- was it in a stable, an inn, or a one-bed flat in Stratford?
And what exactly forced a young couple to undertake an 8-10-day journey to Bethlehem, when historical records show that the census was issued ten years after the birth of the child? This same scepticism pervades the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK, who like Ayana – are forced to retell their, often traumatic, experiences time and time again.
For thousands of asylum seekers in the UK, this Christmas is unlikely to be very different to any other day of the year. Unlike many benefit claimants’ there will be no Christmas bonus in their financial support package from the Government – of just £36.95 per week. And for those who have been resettled in accommodation outside of London and the South, the chances of meeting up with any loved ones they have in the UK will be slim.
So is it time for us to actually take stock of the nativity story once again and question how far we’ve really come? Surely A Very British Christmas in 2016 should be one where there is room at the inn for those who come seeking it in genuine need.
Find out more about the important work being done by Housing Justice to support destitute migrants by going to their website www.housingjustice.org.uk
For all of our #averybritishnativity materials and resources that your Church can use in the run up to Christmas, go to www.jpit.org.uk/averybritishnativity