Christmas is different
I sometimes find I can see a lot of sense in what church leaders have to say, and I sometimes find myself in broad agreement with Richard Dawkins, but it’s not often that I find myself agreeing with both on a single issue. This is one of those cases, because I really like Christmas. It’s hardly surprising that senior members of the church agree with me there – it’s a very literal example of a “Pope found to be Catholic” story – but finding out about Dawkins’ views seems to surprise a lot of people. I’m not all that surprised, though, because I seem to view Christmas in a very similar way.
For one thing, there are a lot of elements of Christmas that are entirely cultural and secular, if anything owing more to the pagan celebration of Yule and the Winter Solstice than the Christian festival which was later positioned right on top of it. There’s nothing particularly Christian about mince pies, holly or Christmas trees, for example, and even where traditions appear to have been started or encouraged by the church, their connection to the Christmas story tends to be tenuous at best.
I also love Christmas carols, even though I rarely find much that I can agree with in the words. Once you’ve taken out the implausible supernatural events from the Biblical account and the bizarre additions which are best descibed as “pious tradition”, there’s very little content left, but that doesn’t bother me. Give me a carol (with a few exceptions – Little Donkey and Away in a Manger are too awful for words) and I’ll raise the roof with my singing. I generally find I have little inclination to sing songs and hymns I don’t agree with, but in this case I find it almost impossible not to.
I don’t know why that should be. Is it because I value the tradition over the truth of the claims? Because I associate the carols with happy times of celebration? Because they’re familiar tunes which return year after year, forming the backdrop to Christmas celebrations for as long as I can remember? Because I only hear them at a certain time of year, so I’m always left wanting more? Probably a bit of each, but that’s largely guesswork on my part.
And to be honest, I find the story at the root of Christmas as unlikely and unbelievable as almost any in the Bible, with practically every element scoring a 10 on my personal WTFometer. I’m generally pretty obsessive about the truth of any claims that are made, so it seems very odd that I can enjoy a celebration based on a narrative about which I’m so dubious. Maybe it’s because the story’s so well-established in my mind that I can get away without thinking about it too much. Maybe it’s about belonging to a sort of shared culture. Or maybe I’ve been taken in by a romanticised Victorian idea of what Christmas is.
So is it a good thing that I find it so easy to join in when I find the underlying story so incredibly implausible? I suppose it depends on your point of view. Some hardline Christians and atheists might feel annoyed that I want to have my cake and eat it, but I hope most would be happy for me to celebrate an occasion which has always been bigger than the church in whatever way makes sense to me. And while irregular churchgoers who only appear at Christmas and Easter are hardly the sort of engagement the church wants, it’s surely better for them if such irregulars exist than not.
In any case, whatever your beliefs or practice, I wish you a very merry Christmas.