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Christmas for a nonbeliever

As a small boy in the 1920s, my father sang in the choir of the parish church, St Matthews, in Walsall in the British Midlands. Twenty years later, he was married with a couple of children and our small, tight family belonged to the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. Friends do not have church services. There is no hymn singing. But every Christmas Eve, religiously as one might say, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the family gathered around the radio to listen to the broadcast of carols and lessons from King’s College, Cambridge.

That was long ago and for me, since I now live in Florida, far away. I have long since lost my faith in the Christian religion. Even if this were not so, I doubt that I would much enjoy Christmas overall. When the kids were little, it was a lot of fun. But now, it strikes me as appallingly commercialized and an occasion when you spend way too much on presents no one really wants, eat and drink to excess, and end by quarreling with people that you have not seen for a year and by which time you both realize why it is that you have not seen each other for a year.

But every Christmas Eve I track down the broadcast of the King’s service and listen to it, even though because of time-zone differences it is now for me in the morning. Music spurs emotions as does no other art form, and I find listening an almost-melancholic experience as memories of my childhood come flooding in and I recall with huge gratitude the loving family into which I was born. I remember also my dedicated teachers recreating civilized life after the horrendous conflicts of the first part of the century. How can one speak except with respect of a man who spent the first half of the decade driving a tank over North Africa and Western Europe, and the second half explaining to nine-year olds why Pilgrim’s Progress is such a tremendous story and something of vital relevance to us today?

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Christmas lights, by shannonpareil, CC-by-2.0 via Flickr

So Christmas remains very important for me, as does the other great highlight of the Christian calendar. As a teenager, having failed O level German miserably, I was packed off one Easter vacation to stay with a family in Germany, so I could (as I did) succeed on the second attempt. Music again. On Good Friday, German radio stations played Bach’s Matthew Passion, and listening to that – even though in respects I prefer the dramatic intensity of the St John Passion – has remained a life-long practice.

Perhaps because it is all so German, I find myself focusing on the dreadful events of the Third Reich, but also – and obviously the theme of Christ’s sacrifice is all-important here – on those who showed super-human qualities in the face of absolute evil and terror. Above all, Sophie Scholl, at twenty-one years old a member of the White Rose group in Munich who started handing out anti-Nazi pamphlets in the middle of the war. Inevitably discovered and condemned to death, as she was led to the guillotine, she said: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

I would not for anything relinquish the experience of Easter and the moments when I contemplate the truly good people – I think of those combating Ebola in West Africa – who stand so far above me and who inspire me, even though I am not worthy to clean their shoes. You don’t have to have religious faith to have these all-important emotions. You do have to be a human being.

“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause.”

And so finally to the third festival, that of Thanksgiving. Growing up in England, it was something unknown to me until, to go to graduate school, I crossed the Atlantic in 1962. In the early years, in both Canada and America, people invited me into their homes to share the occasion with their family and friends. This is something that has stayed with me for over fifty years, and now at Thanksgiving – by far my favorite festival overall — my wife and I hugely enjoy filling the table with folk who are away from home or for one reason or another would not otherwise have a place to be. No special music this time – although I usually manage to drive everyone crazy by playing opera at full blast – but for me an equally poignant occasion when I reflect on the most important thing I did in my life – to move from the Old Word to the New – and on the significance of family and friends and above all of giving. In the Republic, Plato says that only the good man is the happy man. Well, that’s a bit prissy applied to me, but I know what he means. People were kind to me and my wife and I try to be kind to people. That is a wonderful feeling.

Three festivals – memories and gratitude; sacrifice and honor; giving and friendship. That is why, although I have not a scrap of religious belief and awful though the music in the mall may be, I look forward to Christmas, and then to Easter, and then to Thanksgiving, and to the cycle all over again, many times!

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