People and Places

POLITICS CHATTER: The Christmas story (as told by someone who has been on the Hill too long)

Contributing editor Mark Bourrie reimagines the telling of the Christmas story — in a Canadian poli kind of way.

Some 2015 years ago, after Caesar Augustus assumed power in a heavily contested leadership contest that left about 7,500 bloated corpses floating off the city of Actium, Greece, officials of the new regime decided to count all the people in the Roman world and to levy a tax on them.

Presumably, this was a sort of short form census and tax-form filing involving a guy with some papyrus and a jar. Even so, due to the lack of basic government services, including a postal system, this seemingly simple process involved several days of uncompensated travel, at some inconvenience to the taxpayers. (In those days, small business owners like Joseph of Nazareth, a self-employed tradesman, had to live with a certain amount of red tape and bureaucratic interference, especially when the papyrus-pushers were backed by legions of civil servants packing swords and wearing armour.)

So Joseph set out from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Apparently Joseph was eager to have his wife along, even though she was due to give birth at any time. Whatever pre-natal health support Mary had in Nazareth was left behind. And, because of a chronic shortage of public transport, Mary rode a donkey while Joseph walked.

Now, I’ve never been pregnant but I have ridden a donkey bare-back, and I suspect that donkey-riding in the third trimester must be somewhat painful. And once the young couple arrived in Bethlehem, they found the hospitality industry ill-prepared for the influx of visitors. An innkeeper was, however, able to adapt his food and transport storage facility into challenging, if not entirely wholesome, accommodations. Not only was Bethlehem short of short-term rental accommodation, the town also appears to have had no medical infrastructure. Even alternative care, such as midwifery, seems to have been out-of-reach of the working poor.

So Mary gave birth in the stable. Tradition says quite a few local people engaged in meat and textile raw material production — none of whom, supposedly, who had homes that had extra room for two parents and a baby — dropped in on the birth, but whether any actually got in there and helped with the delivery is, strangely, absent from the available literature. It is clear, however, that the hospitality industry was still unwilling to bend on its “No reservation, no accommodation” rule.

Even the arrival of three VIPs carrying a small fortune in gifts, including gold, did not change the chronic housing shortfall, though the donations may have helped the family cover their tax liabilities. The family decided to keep its donkey, rather than upgrade to, say, a horse and cart, which would have made the young mother’s travel somewhat more comfortable.

Meanwhile, the arrival of the mysterious foreigners, supposedly from Iraq and Iran, piqued the curiosity of the local administration. Very quickly, it took an interest in the situation developing in Bethlehem, but rather than provide basic social services like a warm, dry place to live and decent medical care, the local government decided to cull its population of pre-schoolers.

Inspired by this local initiative, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus decided to continue their travels. Back then, the border between Roman Judea and Roman Egypt was rather porous and, apparently, illegal immigration of Jews to Egypt was not met with the kind of hostility and hoop-jumping that one might expect today. Maybe immigration authorities simply gave a break to a new mother being bounced across the desert on a donkey.

A change of administration in Jerusalem three years later inspired the family to return to their home town of Nazareth, where Joseph was able to re-open his sole proprietorship without further government meddling. One would have hoped the family would have been able to continue with its entrepreneurial endeavors and to travel more, but, unfortunately, their only son refused to follow his father into the skilled trades.

Instead, he dabbled in philosophy, holistic medicine, and politics for a short period, until the local authorities arbitrarily detained him under sweeping police powers directed at terrorists.