“Christmas time is here, by golly”
Between strictly Nazarene sermons and thoughtlessly gross consumerism there remains a cloying, Christmassy saccharinity that we can all indulge in, if we want to.
“Christmas time is here, by golly” – these are the words that open Tom Lehrer’s “Christmas Carol”, which he introduces ironically as reflecting “the true spirit of Christmas, as we celebrate it in the United States, that is to say the commercial spirit.” The song distorts the tune and lyrics of popular carols until they celebrate a season of wanton, money-grabbing consumerism.
Lehrer’s faux Christmassy lyrics satirize cynical materialism, but by no means is a Christian religious spirituality thereby preferred – Lehrer comes from a relaxed Jewish background and various interviews, let alone the song The Vatican Rag, make his views on organised religion pretty clear.
Given the annual moans about the death of Christian Christmas and how it’s all be replaced by “secular” materialism, you’d think that an attitude like Lehrer’s - neither materialist nor religious - was rare. After all, without religion, these commentators assume, the only “secular” alternative must be shopping and over-indulgence. And if we’re not reveling in our presents like the spoiled materialists that we are, then we’re trying to “BAN CHRISTMAS” for everyone else.
The evidence for this secular war against Christmas, or attempt to convert it into a festival of consumerism depending on which paper the worrier is writing for, is of course abundant. Take for example the letter sent to every parish in the diocese of Hereford by Bishop of Ludlow, Alistair Magowan, this month. In it he wrote, “There is a story of a church carol service where the misprinted first line of the carol read ‘Away with the Manger.’ Sadly a growing lobby wants to do just that and silence the Christmas message: Keep the tinsel and the frills but throw out the baby.” Well, what more evidence do you need of an aggressive secular conspiracy bent on destroying Christmas than a rumoured misprint in a lyric sheet produced by a church?
Gerald Warner, writing in the Telegraph, is convinced that when politicians opt for non-religious imagery in their Christmas cards, they are enacting a deadly insult. Anyone who, like David Cameron, sends a Christmas card without a crib on it has “endorsed the marginalisation of Christianity – as he did when he voted for the enforced closure of Catholic adoption agencies.” Astoundingly, Warner sees fit to threaten the withdrawal of Christian support on the back of this grievous insult to Baby Jesus: “The equation is straightforward: if Christianity is not good enough for our politicians, then they are not good enough for Christian voters when the time comes to put crosses in boxes. If Christians do not arouse themselves and fight back against this marginalisation they will deserve the continuing decline that awaits them.” (Someone’s definitely not going to make it onto David Cameron’s Christmas card list next year!)
These frantic anti-anti-Christmas commentators are so worried that Christmas is being mysteriously “banned” or “marginalised” they seem blind to the even bigger cliché that the rest of us trot out: that far from retreating into history, the Christmas season is in fact extending itself half way back through the year.
Indeed, we must concede that there are those who find the Christmas omnipresence a little hard to take. Paul Simons in the Times thinks there’s no need for it to be a public holiday because it’s just a sort of fancy Sunday. More modestly, philosopher Julian Baggini told Radio 4′s Moral Maze that people should be allowed to escape from Christmas without it bringing social condemnation down on their paper-hatless heads, which seems only fair enough. And note that even in the case of Simons and Baggini, neither of them are trying to “ban” Christmas, nor are they advocating wanton materialism, nor are they advocating that the religon must be stripped out of Christmas even for the religious. Baggini, a member of the Humanist Philosophers group, makes a point of saying that people should be free to celebrate Christmas with the ‘Christ’ firmly in place if they so choose.
And of course we can also concede that Christmas is not without it’s terrors and horrors. There’s lots to worry about! The BBC’s “Ethical Man” is worried about the meat we consume; the Daily Mail, which normally can’t abide “HEALTH AND SAFETY GONE MAD”, is prepared to let this policy go if there’s a good scare story to be had, so it’s worried about all the accidents you can have at Christmas; even the New Scientist is worried about the strategies and delusions in the interpersonal economics of gift-giving.
But these aren’t secularists trying to destroy Christmas, nor ban cribs in churches, nor to optimise their personal money-spent to gifts-gained ratio.
In fact it seems everyone is knocking Christmas except the secularists.
This December, the first choir affiliated to the British Humanist Association sang their own choral version of Lehrer’s Christmas Carol, arranged by William Morris, for the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People show. Again, Nine Lessons is certainly not religious, but nor is it some kind of orgy of materialism. Robin Ince sold the show saying, “you want a celebration but you don’t believe in religion? Well, here’s a celebration for you.”
Ariane Sherine’s popular The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas was also released this year, featuring more or less Christmassy celebratory chapters with a humanistic bent, by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, David Baddiel, Derren Brown, Charlier Brooker, A C Grayling, Josie Long, Lucy Porter, Ed Byrne… the list goes on. Someone bent on imagining that a midwinter celebration has always been and must forever be related to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth might see the atheism in the title as cheeky. But the writings, by and large, are celebratory, not cynical. They want to share their own Christmas spirit, not rob anyone else of theirs. Andrew Copson’s chapter, reproduced unedited on this site, forcefully makes the case that Christmas, and our sense of the meaning of things in general, is ours to make. It might not be Christian but far more than that it’s ours, deriving from our own friends, families and little traditions.
(It’s worth pointing out, les the charge of rampant materialism stand, that both the Nine Lessons and Carols and Atheist’s Guide to Christmas are charitable endeavours, Nine Lessons donating profits to the Mustard Seed secular school in Uganda and all contributors’ royalties from the Atheist’s Guide going to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Tim Minchin is also donating 50% of the proceeds from his beautiful Christmas song, White Wine in the Sun, see below, to autism research.)
The BHA is asked every year “how humanists celebrate Christmas”, as if we all go home and sulk every 25th December. Never mind that most of the journalists asking this question will probably, like the rest of the country, feel exactly the same way: there’s always been a midwinter celebration at “Christmas” time, and there always will be. And that’s what really scares the crowd screaming that “THEY’RE BANNING CHRISTMAS”, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary: it’s that others are doing it their own way, but actually pretty similarly, with the same cosiness and warmth and schlockiness. If that’s what they want.
If any doubt remains that the non-religious can not only enjoy Christmas non-religiously, but with love (and not presents) in their hearts, then please listen to Tim Minchin and shut up, and have a merry Christmas.
Bob Churchill is Head of Membership and Promotion at the British Humanist Association