Christmas! IT’S CHRISTMAS! The shops all scream it, the town lights sing it, and the whispers of its name fly in from the conversations of those around you. Its namesake, however, is a little harder to find. Away from the schools, outside of the churches, and certainly for most university campuses, ‘Jesus’ is a little harder to come by. That’s OK though; we shouldn’t feel guilty. The meaning of Christmas has never fitted well with the God-king mumbo-jumbo.
I can’t say I remember whether or not I believed in Father Christmas as a small child, but whether it was one special day of the year where a magical man in red delivered presents, or where my parents delivered presents, the end result was the same: lots of presents, and lots of excitement. This was the only day of the year bar my birthday – which is unfortunate enough to fall within days of Christmas – where new video games could be played, new toys could be played with, and many new books could be read. (Fortunately, having a summer-born brother of similar age and disposition alleviates this issue somewhat).
My memories of past Christmases are mostly of watching TV, and a tortuous inability to sleep. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the occasion equally with fewer presents and little less excitement, to be perfectly honest – although a younger me might well have protested at the time, and my parents might have had to spend more time trying to keep me entertained…
There was, of course, always a background buzz around the concept of Christmas; an incessant low-volume whine from the occasional part of the TV and radio schedules, or the school assemblies that made a claim as to the real meaning and purpose of Christmas. It felt as though the former declined a little as I grew older but, attending a Church of England middle and high school, the latter became a lot more prominent in my life – and so did my awareness of what was actually being said. My home-life, however, was for the most part wonderfully free of such mentions.
It has to be said though, that of course Christmas is all about the birth of the baby Jesus. It’s right there in the name. For much of the older and middle-aged population, the day might be the only one of the year that they set foot in a Church. Most of the Christmas songs being played, at least in the past, probably mention Jesus or some aspect of the fantastical story of his birth, as the carols all certainly do. How then, can we claim any different? Aren’t we all hypocrites, us God-deniers, who celebrate Christmas nevertheless?
For me – as for many – Christmas means Family. It means food. I’ll see my aunt and uncle, my cousins, my grandparents. Studying at university, it means I’ll see my parents and brother for the first time since September, and likewise my friends from home. These are not things that religio-Christmas can make a unique claim to.
It also means Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Father Christmas, mistletoe, red and green (in shades colour-blind me can actually differentiate), thoughts of snow, Christmas crackers, and everything else tin between. Of course, there are tenuous links and explanations that religio-Christmas gives for these practices, but it’s undeniably true that many of them have solid pre-Christian origins and influences. There are reasons why celebrations of Christmas vary from country to country, and a big one is that their pre-existing practices differed before Christianity arrived, and long before religio-Christmas became a thing.
Belief in God and Jesus is waning in the UK; a recent British Social Attitudes survey found that, for the first time, the majority of the UK identify as non-religious – rather than Christian. For 18-24-year-olds, around ¾ identify as non-religious. Yet we all still celebrate Christmas.
That’s not because we’re all hypocrites. It’s not because Christmas has become ‘corrupted’. It just shows that what was important about Christmas – the real reason that people began to celebrate Christmas – has always been about something much more tangible, and much more meaningful, than an age-old fairy-tale.
This year, as for years prior and years to come, we’ll eat, drink, and be merry. We’ll give each other presents, and we’ll sing some songs. Heathens we may be, but when it comes to Christmas, we’re gonna damn well enjoy it.