There has been a hyped-up controversey about Christmas in the British press and media during the last few days. Some have said that it has lost its religious significance in society and become a mid-winter festival, rather than the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The triumph of secularism! However others have had scruples about the danger of a Christian festival appearing to dominate other religions, and therefore being a cause of offence to them, and this has become part of the discussion. (Incidently my experience is that most religions are happy to share in the festivals of other faiths, as happens in many of our schools.)
Bishops have had their say. Seeing themselves as guardians of Christian tradition, they have been saying solemn things about it all, apparently not recognising that they may be part of the problem, if problem there is. Older people such as I am and perhaps you are, might be tempted to agree with them, easily infected by the ‘things aren’t what they used to be’ syndrome.
A few things to say about this.
First, ‘things’ have never been what they used to be. As I have said before, nostalgia can be the enemy of truth. Throughout my life, Christmas in Britain has primarily been the people’s mid-winter festival and a time to focus on the strength and resilience of the family. Only for some people has it always been a time for the worship of God and a joyful expression of faith. Secondly – the Church has to accept what most people recognise, that the U.K. is a secular state. Thirdly, the presence of other faiths, often with a more rigorous agenda than most of the British churches, means that whilst inter-faith dialogue is valuable, the bonding element in Western society is citizenship not religion. The churches have to live with that, and not try to drag people to where most of them have never been and may not wish to be.
The other thing that may be worth saying is that the Bishops have a point. Christians are sometimes a disappointing crowd, talking only to themselves. They have done – still do – some daft things. But their mistakes have to be balanced against the gross and ugly excesses of materialistic secularism: the ‘me-society’ as some call it. For some (not me)the Nativity may only be a story, but its narrative of animals of the field, the common people, and the people of wisdom and power, together bowing before the birth of a newly born child who brings hope and love and joy ‘to all the world’, has the power of profound truth. In dramatic contrast to the heedless grabbing culture of modern society.
In the end, Christmas is about gift not greed. That is more than sufficient cause for a celebration in which everyone can join.