Meanings of Christmas: Whose Christmas is it anyway?

At last, it seems the Church may be catching up with what ordinary people have always known about the way to celebrate the birth of Christ
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The Independent Culture
JUST AS with government ministers, if you want to insult a bishop, you call him "trendy". Many in the church leadership, and those in the Vatican in particular, remain suspicious of new ideas, but many clergymen - in their desire to stay (as they say) "alongside" people and in their drive to keep numbers up - are keen judges of new shifts in popular culture and aspiration. They try to keep abreast of the latest consumer unendurables and the soaps' plot-lines, like diligent parents welcoming their daughter's new boyfriend into the house, partly because they love her and partly because they're afraid she'll flounce out if they don't.

Now they are doing the same thing for Christmas. After years of whingeing, the Church is beginning to look at Christmas like everybody else. First, a couple of recent examples: Sunday trading and the National Lottery. In both cases, a significant proportion of the Church fought hard against these developments; in both cases, the moral arguments seemed, at first, to be all on the Church's side: it was bad for people to gamble, it was bad for them to have no let-up from commercial pressures. But, in both cases, the Church lost. The absolute morality hadn't changed (gambling and a seven-day working week are still bad), and there were those who thought the Church ought simply to stick to its principles whatever the cost in terms of unpopularity, marginalisation and ridicule. But to argue thus was to misunderstand the Church's motivation for opposing change in the first place.

Basil Hume, George Carey, the Methodist President, the Scottish Moderator and all that lot are genuinely concerned for the well-being of the whole of the British people, for whom they feel a degree of responsibility. Like diligent parents, they act whenever they see something approaching that might harm their people. The thing is, in this country, at least, church leaders have very little power. This is a vital point to grasp if one wants to understand the dynamics of spiritual politics: the desire to protect is coupled with the lack of the means to do so.

Thus, when people opt for a potentially harmful innovation, the leaders of the mainstream churches first try to argue it away. If they fail, they cannot go off in a sulk - reassuring themselves that, well, at least they and their small band of followers are going to remain pure. If they want to stick with the majority, they have to work with the choices that majority makes. This is an uncomfortable position to be in; but what was essence of the Incarnation if it wasn't God making the best of a bad job? And just imagine the alternative: a priesthood with political power. In the theocracy that would emerge, the object to be protected would cease to be the people, and become instead the beliefs in which the priesthood's power resides. Remember the Inquisition? Not for nothing was God incarnated as a helpless baby.

And so to Christmas. What is happening here is that the democratising process is being applied to the stuff of Christianity itself, and, once again, the Church is powerless to stop it. In the past, the divines had worked out a proper shape for Christmas: a preparatory period of abstinence and reflection on the four last things, death, judgement, heaven and hell - just to get people in the right mood for the festivities, the right mood being one of sober joy, awe, humility and prayerfulness. The post- Christmas period was interspersed with commemorations that reinforced the message: the feast of the holy innocents and the stoning of the first martyr. When the priesthood was powerful enough to set the trend, this was thought an appropriate response to the glorious mystery of the incarnation.

Too earnest for us, though, and so the whole business has been turned on its head. The celebrations and festivities start long before Christmas Day, and the period for sober reflection, if there has to be one, has attached itself to the doldrums between Christmas and New Year (though not, as yet, to New Year's Eve itself).

And what's this? Christian professionals are starting to appear more relaxed. Once again, the movement began with the parish clergy, for whom December is now booked out with carol services and Christingles, and has extended up the hierarchy. To judge how far it has gone one has to look for signs of omission: it will be some time yet before you hear sermons in praise of unbridled commercialism, but the time may come. The Archbishop of York may have begun the process by contrasting, in a newspaper sermonette, the humility of the first nativity not with the glitz of Christmas consumerism but with . . . the Millennium Dome - the kind of move which is known in PR circles as a "swerve". And instead of dwelling on the things lost - patience, anticipation, reflection - our church leaders praise elements of the "new" Christmas: the extension of generosity, hospitality, charity, family responsibility and overall cheerfulness.

Yes, this is a sign of the Church's weakness, and its inability to order even its own business; but thank goodness for it. What it really means is that, perforce, our spiritual guardians are having to acknowledge the innate moral robustness and good sense of the ordinary people. It was to these people, after all, that Jesus first appeared.

Paul Handley is Editor of the `Church Times'