You have probably seen the recent controversy (perhaps deliberately created) around Greggs the bakers creating an Advent Calendar in which the last window sees the body of the baby Jesus replaced with a sausage roll.
My first reaction was laughter. Sausage rolls are funny. They do look a bit like a swaddled child too when you squint a bit.
Then I started to think about it a bit and couldn’t help but think of the inappropriateness of a pork based snack being in a scene in Bethlehem with the Jewish Holy Family. Then I also remembered that my Muslim brothers and sisters honour Jesus as holy.
And then I felt uncomfortable. Yes it’s funny initially but the birth of Christ – in lowly circumstances, is at the core of my beliefs as a Christian. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus becoming one of us and the ultimate image of Christmas is of the baby lying in the straw – God with us.
Think of one of your favourite family photos. Now think of it with the most precious person to you in it replaced with in an image of a cheap sausage roll. It’s not very nice is it?
There is a lot going on in this little episode with Greggs:
- crass commercialism – it comes out every Christmas and very recently more and more outlandish advent calendars are de rigueur – without anyone really understanding the point of an advent calendar is anticipation rather than instant gratification!
- lack of religious literacy – for example, did the people who came up with the idea not realise that Jesus is held in high regard by Muslims?
- appropriation of iconography – this happens a lot these days with meme making, in some ways the nativity scene is a kind of meme (invented by St Francis)
I think because Christianity is the state religion that this makes Christianity more fair game for ridicule. And let’s face it those of us, particularly in the Church of England, make a virtue of sending ourselves up – just look at my site anglicanmemes.com!
Part of me was kind of pleased that at least the Christian origins of Christmas were evident in this Greggs Advent calendar. Every year I get irritated at having to hunt for ‘religious’ Christmas cards! It’s a bit like the comment made at a conference about the Life of Brian recently where people said that at least when the film came out in the 70s people had enough biblical knowledge to ‘get’ the ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ joke – now it doesn’t even register as a joke in a young audience.
Making foodstuffs based on the Christmas story is not new. In fact, Greggs should have gone for the stollen for the baby Jesus – as stollen cake is supposed to represent the baby Jesus (the marzipan) in his swaddling clothes! The problem with the sausage roll is misappropriation. One concern I have is that when using very familiar Christian iconography (which is designed to be replicated as a meme to help spread the message of the faith) advertisers, because it is the ‘default’ religion in our country don’t ask the question ‘who might this upset?’ in the same way they might if using iconography from another religion. As Rowan Williams once said, we don’t live in a secular country, we live in a country haunted by the memory of religion. That memory, as each year passes, is getting more and more faint, unfortunately – and so we end up with a sausage roll in a manger.
The sad thing is – it’s almost ok. Almost. After all, the only place left for Jesus to be placed is in a feeding trough for animals – it’s not a salubrious beginning – and that is the point and the scandal of the incarnation.
It leaves a progressive Christian like me with a quandary. I don’t want to get outraged – as there are things that are far more worth my anger than this (such as child food poverty in the UK). I don’t want to come across as reactionary or suggest that this means that Christians are being persecuted – this is not persecution at all. I want to show that Christians know how to have a laugh and don’t take themselves too seriously. But at the end of it, I am a Jesus follower. The arrival of the Christ child is the most shattering thing that has ever happened in history, it changed the course of history for ever: God with us. To replace the image of God as a child with a sausage roll is actually quite offensive. But, in the same way as it will help Greggs to flog a few more pastry snacks this Christmas I hope this will get people talking about Jesus and his central role in Christmas more than if they hadn’t done it – maybe all publicity is good publicity in this case?
Don’t worry though. I’m not going to try and crowbar the sausage roll into my Christmas sermon!
Here is my round up of articles on this story that are worth a read: