Friday, 16 December 2011

Christmas thoughts from my chair

While there seems to be determined effort in some quarters to remove the Christian message out of Christmas, such as items about trend towards secular carol concerts citing Raymond Gubbay's 120 Christmas concerts nationwide, not mentioning the astonishing fact that last year 41% of Londoners attended carol services, there was a welcome exception on BBC's Countryfile last night, which created a traditional village celebration with none of the sceptical airbrushing that we've become accustomed to. The Christian elements of the festival were straightforwardly explored, from the star to the God pie (three-cornered mince pie representing the Trinity) to the animals. It was thoroughly uncynical and refreshing. Thank you, BBC.

Coincidentally on Friday night David Cameron had hit a raw nerve with some in a speech in Oxford marking the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible, in which he talked about the importance of the Christian heritage of our country. He also said it was "easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity". "Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.""Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France," he said. "And because many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and indeed by people of no faith at all."  

Sadly the speech wasn't quoted on the Radio 4 news that night, only a predictable sound-bite from humanist ex-MP, Evan Harris, saying that restating our Christian history was divisive of religious groups - and anyway such ethical principles as "Do to others what you'd like them to do to you" predate all religions by thousands of years. Of course he adduced no evidence for his view, merely that they were rational principles. (Isn't reason God-given anyway?) He's quite wrong, of course, about the divisiveness of a distinctively Christian stance. When I taught in a multi-racial school in Oxford, it happened to be a Church of England school, founded by the Cowley Fathers to bring education to the poor areas of East Oxford. (The Christian contribution to education and in social involvement, by the way, is something often ignored or airbrushed out by faith's detractors.) Significantly ours was the school of choice for local Muslims, because they preferred a school where faith in God mattered to one with no religion. We used to enjoy our 6th-form assemblies in which Christian, Muslim, atheist, black, brown and white shared and discussed their faiths. Divisive? You're joking!

For someone who has no faith in God, it's a simple mistake to make imagining that different faiths can't coexist harmoniously. (It's also a lie fraught with danger, if not inciting hatred.) For many centuries they did so in the near middle east, as William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain beautifully records. And just last week I read this fascinating news item from Jerusalem:
"This holiday season, many evangelical Christians and their families are using the Hanukah Tree Topper and Star of David Tree Topper to crown their Christmas trees. The idea was the brainchild of Morri and Marina Chowaiki who have sold many thousands of the decorative 'menorahments' after making one to put on top of their own Christmas tree because they couldn’t find one in any store. The couple say that they have received many orders from people who want a symbol of Israel and peace on their tree and have received, 'tons of positive feedback.'"
There's a trenchant (and often misquoted) comment by Ben Stein, inter al speech writer for Richard Nixon, which was broadcast on CBS on 18th December 2005.
"Here at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart:

"I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are (US reality TV "couple"). I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I'm buying my dog biscuits. I still don't know. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores who they are. They don't know who Nick and Jessica are, either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they've broken up? Why are they so darned important?

"I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is either, and I don't care at all about Tom Cruise's baby.

"Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I'm a subversive? Maybe. But I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are. Is this what it means to be no longer young? Hm, not so bad.

"Next confession: I am a Jew and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish, and it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautifully lit-up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees.

"I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are — Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they're slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we're all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.

"It doesn't bother me one bit that there's a manger scene on display at a key intersection at my beach house in Malibu.

"If people want a creche, fine. The menorah a few hundred yards away is fine, too. I do not like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat. Or maybe I can put it another way. Where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and aren't allowed to worship God as we understand him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we used to know went to." 
Rather wonderful crib in Sorrento Cathedral
So to my friends, of whatever colour and creed, I wish you a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year (I guess there's more hope of the former than the latter!). Hopefully you'll reciprocate in the way that suits you best.


  1. I loved it - but I don't want you to be embarrassed by my adulation so I'll have just a tiny niggle with your conclusion! I used to wish people a "prosperous" New Year but it has such material connotations nowadays that I prefer to wish them health and happiness - my wish for you and Jane and all your friends and family.

  2. Christmas predates your bronze age superstitions - please stop hijacking it. Oh and just because people attend Carol services, it doesn't mean they believe in God! Richard Dawkins loves choir music but I think we all know where he stands on the subject. David Cameron hit a raw nerve because what he said was fundamentally inaccurate. Check the responses from the British Humanist Association to see why. Let's also look at the moral teachings of a few religions, including child raping priests, Muslims cutting off the clitoris of baby girls, and of course, Jewish baby boys having their genitals mutilated in one of the most sickening rituals ever created.

    Sorry for the randomness of my post, I wanted to make my points more succinctly but I'm eager to get back to celebrating this SECULAR holiday.

  3. Oh and I think you'll find Confucius is credited with "do unto others". So there's your source.

  4. How interesting you choose anonymity and that you quote Confucius (predated by Moses, "Love your neighbour as yourself"). You seem deliberately to misrepresent my post, presumably because you prejudge its conclusions. For example, I distinguished between carol concerts and carol services. I can't imagine Mr Dawkins habituating services of worship services of a deity in whom he considers a superstitious myth. I'd not insult his integrity like that. Perhaps he might go to Christmas concerts. I was talking about Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, not about religion (which, just like atheism, has been responsible for atrocious acts). He's a historical character, you know, not a superstition, and personally I find his moral teaching inspiring even if hard to live up to. He told his followers to love their enemies - which WAS pretty ground-breaking. So, although I don't know who you are (but it sounds as though you don't like me much), I'll still wish you a happy Christmas and a merry New Year. I hope you enjoy your holiday!