It starts, as my stories often do, with a conversation in a coffee shop.
I’m chatting lazily with a friend. Inevitably we’re drawn into the Christmas conversation. The presents bought, not yet bought. The food. The time off off work (neither of us actually have a job so this is ironically done). The comfort of shared ritual.
“Are you going…” I ask, vacantly wiping the froth from a cappuccino from my beard with a paper napkin, “….to the carol service on Sunday?”
He shakes his head. A slight but definite motion.
“No, I don’t go to church.”
I’m startled. A momentarily loss of composure. It’s partly the directness of the response. The mentioning of a shibboleth. As an atheist living in a small society where Christian principles still maintain traction, I’m used to avoiding religion as a subject for polite discourse.
But it’s more than this. I’m caught by surprise. His response is so quaint that it disarms me.
I almost respond: ‘What the bloody hell has church got to do with a Christmas carol service?’
But, of course, it’s perfectly logical. I’m asking someone if they want to stand beside me singing songs about the birth of a child in a manger two millennia back. A story which forms the origin of one of the world’s dominant religions today.
For a clear mind, an uncluttered mind, it’s the obvious response.
“No, I don’t go to church.”
The open air carol service takes place a few weeks before Christmas in the centre of the little village where I live. In a small clearing an attractively modest tree adorned with oversized ruby baubles has been erected.
Several hundred people turn up. Mostly families. Excited young children on their daddy’s shoulders, straining for a better view of the tree. Our little boy has brought a glowing wand and pretends he’s turning the mayor into a frog during an opening prayer.
It’s cross-denominational with representatives of all the local churches in attendance. An elderly man stresses that people of all faiths are welcome. As, I have to assume, are those of none.
The ceremony starts with a silver band playing Joy to the World. Silver, not brass, as the mayor states.
Then a choir of children from the local school start to sing. There’s a lot of mumbling at first before the outline of something recognisable emerges. I enthusiastically join in. Other parents begin to step nervously away from me. Mummy points out I’m on the wrong page and am singing a different hymn from everyone else.
We count down from ten to zero before the mayor turns on the lights. We cheer and clap our hands and chat happily.
Happy because the carols come closer than anything else to unlocking something inside us. A feeling. An idea of something. Something which provides succour. They’re undeniably familiar. A link back to childhood and a sense of wonder around Christmas. A feeling that we casually cast aside somewhere in early adolescence and then spent the rest of our lives trying to recapture.
The melodies of the carols are wonderful and as instantly recognisable as my son’s smile. Lyrically, there are more womb mentions than necessary but nobody ever seems to remember anything past for first couple of lines so it’s alright.
Then there’s the joy in doing something as a community. Gathered together around a tree in the night in scarves and gloves chanting ancient rhymes while the frost, light as a glistening, silver web, descends on us. If I close my eyes and listen to the band playing God Rest Thee Merry Gentlemen, I can almost feel like a character in a Dickens story.
And then we go home to see what’s on Netflix.
The Christmas season is upon us.
I retune my battered little wireless to Classic FM because they play the traditional carols. I search for my old DVD of The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. I find it and triumphantly blow the dust from the case. Then I remember I don’t have a DVD player and put it back where I found it.
My mind is full of lists (I never help myself by writing anything down). Lists of Santa presents, mummy presents, other presents. The baking list – mince pies, Christmas cake, gingerbread, edible gifts.
Mummy, son and I will be in our own house right throughout the holiday season this year. Just how I like it.
I’m cooking. All on my own. For the two sides of the family over Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day. I won’t accept any help. Stay out of my kitchen.
My newborn infant nephew will be there, being tenderly passed around the adults. Precious as gold (or frankincense and myrrh).
It will all be stressful, expensive, unnecessarily lavish, wasteful and undoubtedly detrimental to my diet.
And I expect that I will enjoy every sentimental moment of it.
The carol service is done. Next on the list is the nativity play. My son is a shepherd. There seems to be about 200 shepherds at this birth.
He’s learning at school about the Christmas story. I took him to the hospital recently to visit his new baby cousin.
As we walked through the ward we had an unexpected exchange.
‘Daddy, do you know who the most special baby of all is?’
‘It’s the baby Jesus.’
‘Actually son, it’s not. It’s you.’
I didn’t want to confuse him so I left it there.
But it did start a flea buzzing in my head. It was there also when my friend told me why he didn’t go to the carol service and when I was singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing while everyone else sang Once in Royal David’s City.
What is this mess of a thing called Christmas?
When I go to a church it’s to admire the architecture. Never to worship. But I throatily bellow out the religious sentiments in the carols with no evident sense of embarrassment or acknowledgment of hypocrisy.
I try to teach my son that Christmas means compassion, sharing and charity while simultaneously feeding his desire for more and more useless material possessions.
Which brings me to the two most common complaints I hear about Christmas. That it’s lost its true meaning. And that it’s become too commercial.
But trying to find a true meaning in the origins of Christmas is as elusive and pointless as waiting up all night to see Santa.
Start by taking elements of various folk and pagan festivals. Some Ancient Greek practices, the Roman Saturnalia, Jewish Hanukkah, Druid traditions.
There is nothing remotely Christian about the date of December 25. It’s not mentioned in any gospel. It’s an evolution of an ancient pagan midwinter festival. The winter solstice has passed, the days have finally begun to get longer. It’s as good a reason as any for a party.
The practices of decorating houses with foliage, cutting holly and mistletoe and even carol singing all originated from midwinter festivals.
But even if you leave all of this aside and concentrate on the Biblical origins of Christmas it’s not much more helpful.
Matthew and Luke’s gospels give wildly differing accounts. Matthew has an angel visiting Joseph. Luke’s account tells of an angel visiting Mary. Matthew has wise men led to Bethlehem by a star. Luke has shepherds led by an angel.
Matthew’s account mentions nothing at all about Jesus being born in a manger. He has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem and Jesus born in a house there.
Luke has the family coming from Nazareth but travelling to Bethlehem for a census and the birth in a manger.
The gospel of Mark, which may have been written earliest, does not mention the birth of Jesus at all.
Now I have no particular interest in starting a discussion about how all the differing stories and traditions can be made consistent, I merely highlight them to point out that searching for a true original meaning of Christmas is ultimately pointless.
And what of the other charge? That it has become too commercial.
But then that’s our world. Untrammelled and unfettered attempts to make more and more money by seducing more and more people into spending more and more of it. Christmas and money have always been closely connected. Commercialism is out of control and drags Christmas along with it, not the other way around.
And it’s not a new thing for people to be uncomfortable with the lavish excesses of Christmas. In the 17th and 18th century religious puritans attempted to banish the holiday altogether, opposed to a festival which was so clearly orientated towards having fun.
It was only repopularised in Britain in Victorian times when Prince Albert brought a series of festive traditions with him from Germany, such as the Christmas tree.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol probably did more than anything else to set the template for what a Christmas should be that we recognise today. Ironically much of the success of Dickens’ book and the popularity of the Victorian Christmas seems to be down to nostalgia. An attempt to recreate the magic of Christmases from a distant time.
Some things, it seems, never change.
So now, when I describe Christmas as a mess, hopefully you see what I mean.
And trying to make sense of it will only give you a sore head to rival that which follows your work Christmas party.
There is no set meaning of Christmas. Make of it what you will. It doesn’t belong to a Christian. Or a Druid. Or a parent. Or a child. Or a trader.
I’ve always loved it. I’m sure I always will.
And here’s why.
I’m going to get to spend two whole weeks with my wife and son. I’ll get to see all my other family members also. I’ll catch up with many old friends. I know there will be so many laughs.
I’ll spend too much money on presents. I get happiness from being able to surprise my wife by picking the right gift. It really is better to give than to receive. If I get socks and drawers then that’s just grand.
I get to bake and cook and eat far too much and feel that I have an excuse. I’ll roast a turkey, a ham, maybe a goose too.
I’ll watch a few films. I’ll listen to a load of carols, singing my lungs out.
I might even visit a church or two, to see the decorations or nativity scene. But I won’t be there to worship.
We’ll count the days down with my son, watching the excitement build as we get closer.
And then on Christmas morning we’ll wake early. I’ll take his little hand and we’ll go down the stairs. Mummy and I will be right there with him as he opens the door. We’ll see the look on his face. He might not always remember the moment. But I will.
It’s the closest thing we have in this world to real magic.
And it’s fine. It’s absolutely fine.
As a Christmas hero once put it, ‘Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.’