Christmas from the outside, by William Sutcliffe

For weeks we've been exhorting you to spend, spend, spend, but now that the presents have (with any luck) been bought and the preparations are complete, it's time to ponder the deeper meaning of Christmas. We asked our favourite writers to rant, reflect or reminisce on a festive theme. As Ronald Hutton explains, the last thing you should feel at this time of year is guilty, so sit down with a mince pie and enjoy
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You don't have to believe much to qualify as a Jew. In fact, you don't really have to believe anything. I am an atheist Jew, a statement that would be a ludicrous oxymoron when applied to any other religion, but is perfectly normal within Judaism. Even quite religious Jews, as far as I can tell, often don't take the whole God thing very seriously. Judaism, on the whole, is about what you do, not what you believe.

Even more important than the things you are supposed to do are the hundreds of things you are supposed not to do. A non-believing Jew can top up his or her feelings of Jewishness by obediently not doing some of them. Even the most lapsed, athiest Jews tend not to do some of the things you are supposed not to do. Eating pork, for example, is pretty near the top of the list. I eat pork. I like pork. In fact, from the extremely long list of forbidden activities, I do all of them except one. It's where I've drawn my own personal Jewishness line in the sand. It's not very challenging, either. The one forbidden act I comply with is to not be a Christian. (Though I do like some of the songs.)

This makes Christmas tricky. Christmas is difficult for all Jews living in Christian countries, regardless of whether or not they happen to believe a word of their own religion. For religious Jews, Christmas presents the least difficulty. They simply ignore it. This can involve some strange mental contortions in a country where everything stops, but religious people are used to that.

I once asked a religious friend of mine, whose family gathered reluctantly at Christmas time, simply because they had nowhere else to go, what they would be doing on Christmas Day. "Nothing," she replied. "What, nothing?" I asked. "Nothing," she insisted, flatly, refusing to elaborate on what this nothing might constitute. "But you'll have a meal together, won't you?" She shot me an angry glare. "Yes, but we'd be having lunch anyway," she snapped.

For 364 days a year, Britain doesn't feel like a Christian nation. Religion, in this country, generally feels like a minority pursuit on a par with lacrosse or macram. It's not hard to ignore. But on 25 December, even the least Jewish of Jews begins to feel like a Jew.

You cannot go to work or the shops or the cinema or the theatre, and all of your friends will be busy. You cannot easily travel anywhere. The only thing to do, whatever your religion, is to spend time with your family. For Jews, where coming together as a family and eating a meal is the centrepiece of most festivals where the family meal on a Friday evening is a religious occasion on Christmas Day, as you look at your assembled family across the dining table, however determinedly unfestive your behaviour, you feel as if you have been co-opted into a ceremony of another religion.

So what should a good Jew eat on 25 December? The better the meal, the closer it is to a Christmas lunch, therefore the less Jewish you are being. However, providing good meals at family gatherings is close to every Jewish mother's heart, so if you deliberately make a bad or a spartan meal, you are also, at some level, being un-Jewish. Catch-22.

Almost the only non-turkey-serving commercial enterprises open on Christmas Day are Chinese restaurants. This provides a get-out clause taken up by many Jews. You can see your family, you can eat a good meal (phew!), but you can feel secure in the knowledge that there's nothing remotely Gentile about your day.

In fact, as you stroll down an empty street of shuttered shops and enter a restaurant populated by other refugees from Christmas, you feel that you are somehow asserting your outsiderness stating a rejection of Christmas that becomes by default an assertion of your Jewishness. The Chinese meal on Christmas Day has, for some, become almost a shadow festival of British Jewry.

Religious Jews can ignore Christmas more easily than lapsed Jews, because lapsed Jews are more likely to be integrated with Gentiles, and their children will be caught up in the gift-giving hysteria. If you don't have a good crack at Passover and Yom Kippur, you can't very easily deny your child their share of Yuletide consumerism on the grounds that it is forbidden by a set of beliefs that you haven't shown any sign of manifesting the rest of the year.

So my family did a kind of half-hearted seasonal gift exchange, with a small fir tree brought in from the garden during the years when this was the kind of thing that gave my brother and me a giddy thrill of arboreal displacement. There was, frankly, nothing Jewish about it. Only the slight crapness of the presents testified to the fact that this wasn't really our festival.

We spent every Christmas morning, along with a gathering of local families, at the home of our closest friends, who also happened to be Jews, more religious than us, but with a bigger tree and better presents (every family finds their own compromise). The local group was a cosmopolitan mix of Jewish, Christian and Asian, and the Christmas- morning gatherings continued for almost 20 years, eventually becoming the once-annual contact point for childhood friendships that had otherwise faded to nothing.

It was for this, more than anything, that I looked forward to Christmas the coming together of the community I was brought up in, one day a year, in the house of a family that had been part of my life since babyhood. That family recently left the area, and my old friends these days mostly have children, and other places to go on Christmas Day. I now have a four-year-old son of my own, who has been looking forward to Christmas since August, and I enjoy his enjoyment of it. But when he's a teenager, I hope we'll be going for a Chinese.

William Sutcliffe's new novel, 'Whatever Makes You Happy', will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2008'