Do They Know It's Christmas?

Anthony Bryer takes a Byzantine view of time and identity.

Constantine VII and Simeon diningWho can forget Christmas 1984? Amid carols in the supermarket came a new tune by Bob Geldof, pop singer and philanthropist. It was a heart-rending plea for the relief of famine in Ethiopia. His song shamed shoppers by facing them with a barely imaginable leap to an economic Third World. The Ethiopians had not been invited to the common feast. Memorably, Geldof asked, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ Of course they did. The question was whether Bob Geldof knew it was Christmas, which in Ethiopia was to come, of course, on 29 Tahasas, 1700.

Cultural leaps can be even greater than economic ones and cultural imperialism is all the harder to stomach if it is unwitting and the stomach is empty. The Ethiopians had lost everything but their identity, of which a calendar can be quite as vital an identifier as language or kingship – and they had already lost their ancient Christian emperorship before Geldof questioned their very calendar.

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