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Why Christmas should matter to us whether we are ‘religious’ or not

There are many aspects of Christmas that, on reflection, make little sense. We are supposed to be secular-minded, rational, and grown up in the way we apprehend the world around us. Richard Dawkins speaks for many when he draws a distinction between the “truth” of scientific discourse and the “falsehoods” perpetuated by religion which, as he tells us in The God Delusion, “teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding” (Dawkins, 2006).

If this is so, then Christmas, with its extraordinary tales of virgin births and Santa Claus, should be a relic of a bygone age – a throwback perhaps to antiquity when the Church superimposed a Christian festival upon the pagan Saturnalia, Kalends, Yuletide or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Certainly, this writer is not alone when he contends that “nowadays, Christmas is, for many of us, a holiday that has no religious significance at all,” on the grounds that when one celebrates “good will, generosity, and peace among nations” (Mercer, 2010) and when we adorn the festival with “Christmas trees, wreaths, coloured lights, candy canes, carols and Christmas music,” this does not “put us in mind of any values or doctrines specifically Christian or religious” (ibid.). So, on this reckoning, we pay merely lip service to Christmas as a religious festival. People may go to church, and there may be an abundance of values that would hardly be an anathema to Christians, such as showing kindness and charity to strangers. But, crucially, these need not be construed as religious per se.

Indeed, one of the greatest New Testament scholars of the last century, Rudolf Bultmann, would see eye to eye with Dawkins on the need to divest ourselves of any mythological accoutrements if we are to function and flourish in the modern world. For Bultmann, it was a major stumbling block to be beholden to a pre-scientific worldview: “nobody reckons with direct intervention by transcendent powers” because “modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe” (Bultmann NT&M, 1985). We cannot seriously embrace the latest technological and scientific capabilities – from iPads to IVF, from stem cell research to WiFi – while at the same time subscribing to an archaic cosmology which posits the existence of angels and demons.

No matter how consumerist and materialist the modern Christmas may be, we still find space for magic, typified by when we encourage our children to believe that Santa travels around the world on Christmas Eve delivering presents to every good boy and girl.

Yet no matter how obsolete the cosmology, the irony is that it is the “secular” film industry today which is so brazenly beholden to it. With its ready-made adornment of redeemer-figures by way of Santa and Scrooge, flying reindeer, magical elves and Lapland as a functional equivalent of the Christian heaven, Christmas movies, with their metaphysical and supernatural flights of fancy, suggest that we might not have moved on too far from the days of the New Testament. Christmas actively embraces the miraculous and the transcendental. No matter how consumerist and materialist the modern Christmas may be, we still find space for magic, typified by when we encourage our children to believe that Santa travels around the world on Christmas Eve delivering presents to every good boy and girl. And it is not just children who subscribe to this myth. Indeed, Alex Lester on Radio 2 in the early hours of Christmas morning in 2015 gave his listeners regular updates during the course of his “After Midnight” programme of where Santa was around the globe, even telling us around half past midnight that Santa had already delivered 4.1 million presents, and was presently seen heading from Iceland to Brazil. Canon Roger Royle, a stalwart of Radio 2’s “Pause for Thought” and “Sunday Half Hour,” even invited his listeners shortly before 5am to take a look out of the window and see if Santa had gone past yet. The BBC’s Asian Network was no exception, with British Asian Bhangra singer Danny Sarb, who presented a Christmas morning special, telling listeners that, when he was young, “I waited for Santa to come down the chimney” and joking that “I still remember I used to write Santa a letter every single year – and I still do sometimes, even though I’m 22.”

No matter how ingrained our assumptions may be that Christmas is a “secular” holiday, the reality is far more nuanced than that. Christmas may be one festival of the year which strongly polarizes people precisely because it is either seen as inescapably secular (due to its commercialized and consumerist pedigree) or as a quintessentially religious festival in view of its Christian origins. But any festival which can find authentic manifestations of wonder, miracles, sacrifice, fellowship, redemption and love because of, rather than in spite of the greed, the consumerist telos and the concomitant disenchantment, suggests that our categories of religion need to be reshaped and revisited. Maybe it is in and through the secular that we can find one of the greatest manifestations in the world today of a religious celebration.

Featured image credit: “Christmas bokeh” by Susanne Nilsson. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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