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A tricky tale to hang on a donkey

Britain is slowly ceasing to be a Christian nation, so it is not at all surprising that the idea of Christmas should provoke uneasy ethnic stirrings. As a religious festival it is all too easily avoided: only a small proportion of us bother to go to church, and the closest many of us get to a carol is if we tune in to the sound systems in shopping malls. But as a social and commercial proposition it cannot be wished away even by the millions of Britons to whom it means nothing. Still, people try. Last month it was suggested, by a busy official in Birmingham, that Christmas be renamed "winterval" so as to detach it from any specifically Christian (ie insulting, imperialist, etc) overtones. And the tabloids made merry last week with the head teacher who cancelled the Christmas party in her school in favour of a summer knees-up, and did not decorate a Christmas tree.

Christmas in schools is bound to become an increasingly vexed issue as the years pass and the social composition of post-imperial Britain develops. The usual nativity panto is rapidly giving ground to vaguer stories about rabbits and fairies, so everyone can join in. Fearful purists may be quick to see this as the thin end of the wedge. Presumably it is only a matter of time before the anti-European lobby discovers that education in France is strictly secular (religion being a private matter), and paints doom-laden scenes of the cold, atheist future being planned for us by sinister Eurocrats.

But why the fuss? Christmas is already a multicultural event. A miracle- story translated from Hebrew through Greek and Latin into English, dressed later in snow and mistletoe (a Druid talisman), with a Victorian overlay of German fir trees and Nordic reindeer for good measure: our "traditional" Christmas is a complicated ethnic stew. We've been pinning new tales on to the Bethlehem donkey for centuries. Who should worry if it acquires a few new twists?

The Birmingham officials who suggested rechristening - er, I mean renaming - Christmas were roundly and rightly mocked, because the festival can change, and is changing, without needing to uproot the name. "Happy Christmas!" is easier and jollier than "See you after a decent Winterval!" But the tradition of a frosty carnival does, of course, go back much further than the Christian ideas that have clustered round it. It is almost certainly not Christ's birthday: the date was fixed AD440, nearly half a millennium after the event it was meant to mark, and that is a long time to be forgetting someone's birthday. Since then we have come to imagine the birth of Jesus as, well, Christmassy - a matter of holly berries, shining snowflakes and sputtering candles. This makes for some curious seasonal effects in the southern hemisphere. In Australia the Christmas cards used to be full of snowmen and robins even as people slapped on suntan oil and headed for the beach.

It is natural that we should prefer a winter feast - a Saturnalia - to a sunnier fiesta. Christmas clung, in our chilly island, to the winter solstice: it is a time of wassailing, a time to huddle round the fire and celebrate the fact that the days aren't going to get any shorter. This feeling is still strong in our early carols. The point of Christmas, as one of them has it, is to "wholly consort with mirth and with sport, To drive the cold winter away". Our most ancient song, which can still be heard annually in Queen's College, Oxford, describes the mouthwatering delights of a boar's head on the Christmas platter.

The first Christmas card was sold in 1846 as a wheeze to boost Post Office sales, and was very controversial (it showed a family slurping wine). The Christmas tree is a German idea brought by Prince Albert of Saxe- Coburg-Gotha, whose memorial in Kensington has just been expensively gilded. And don't tell the Sun, or it might whack out a big "Foxtrot Oscar Santa Klaus!" front page, but Father Christmas is a German too. We have adopted him in our own way, of course: his present celebrity was given a prod by the original marketing campaign for Coca-Cola, which put him in red and white and suggested, tacitly, that he was "the real thing".

Traditions change, but names remain. How many of us, on Boxing day, will put money in the traditional "Christmas box," so that priests can give it to the poor or needy? Funnily enough, this Boxing Day bounty used to be known as the "dole of the Christmas box," but these days the dole has been institutionalised. Let's hope the people involved don't look the word up: to dole out means "to give out in a niggardly manner".

Finally, I know I am not the only one to have been struck by the eager festive motto chosen last week by Tony Blair as his contribution to a tabloid Christmas round-up. Carpe diem - seize the day. It must have sounded thoroughly leaderlike to whoever thought of it (send in the Tornados, and hurry). But it is a striking U-turn away from the anthem that struck so many chords during the last election. "Seize the day," Horace wrote. "Trust tomorrow as little as you may." So carpe diem, roughly translated, means - things can only get worse. Happy Christmas.