Faith & Reason : Why I won't celebrate Christmas

Daphne Hampson, author of After Christianity and Senior Lecturer in Divinity at St Andrews University, explains why she will not be joining in the festivities next week.

I attend a Christmas party. A choir of cherub-faced undergraduates sing of a virgin and her baby boy. I am embarrassed, ill at ease. They invite requests. A woman - whose company I have been enjoying - calls out: "The Holly wears the Crown", correcting herself to "The Holly and the Ivy". Sotto voce another woman says "nice pagan carol!" Overhearing the exchange, a most senior (male) member of the university, a scholar of the pagan ancient world, twinkles. I absorb the scene.

The Christmas story of course lacks any basis. In his customary zest to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, the author of Matthew's Gospel cites Isaiah 7. But while the Greek Old Testament, in a mistranslation, says "virgin", the original Hebrew has no such connotation.

This is not a harmless myth. Young children will, this Christmas again, enact nativity scenes. There are shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, a father. Only one woman is present, and she qua mother. Each year a baby boy is born. An Anglican priest tells me his eight-year-old daughter enquired: "Daddy, did God have a daughter?"

The male myth forms the lynchpin of a complex sexual symbolism, in which the female represents the secondary, subordinate term. Thus Mary, who represents humanity, is "female" in relation to a "male"God . Likewise the Church, or the people of Israel (who sin and go astray), is cast as "female". Letting Mary stand for humanity, the Protestant Karl Barth speaks of "this non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign, merely ready, merely receptive, virgin human being".

Indeed, the Christmas story exaggerates God's "maleness". The Catholic theologian Michael Schmaus writes: "What is otherwise achieved through the action of a male, was done to Mary by God's omnipotence." God and Mary become a fertile couple, who conceive a child long-distance. Mary is humble - and obedient. It is a male father-son genealogy, in which woman forms the necessary intermediary.

Doubtless it comforts men. God is father, while the mother is wholly present for the boy child, the actual father off the scene. In Christian symbolism woman is never portrayed as the equal of man. You don't see Mary with her mouth open, talking or laughing, a sexual being who desires her husband.

It may well be that, in his religion, man explores what he names his "feminine" side. In his imagination he regains the mother; or else attains to a mystical oneness with the "father", now endowed with nurturing qualities. He may even cast himself as "female" in relation to this God. But such moves scarcely aid women!

Nor is a wholly male Protestantism necessarily an improvement over such Catholic symbolism. A religion of brothers simply excludes sexual diversity. Why should women wish to join sons who, through the Son, find reconciliation with the Father? Why was reconciliation needed? Why indeed was God ever absent, requiring incarnation?

In rejecting this myth women have not necessarily become atheists. On what had my new-found friend at the party been discoursing? The banal materialism of the American mid-West society from which she came. Most women I admire and treasure have about them a marked spirituality. Some of us indeed hold more explicitly religious beliefs, myself included. It seems to be the case that prayer is powerful, that quiet, loving concentration on another brings about miracles. When others think of us our lives are changed and healed.

Christmas equals many things. How badly - in our frantic lives - we need to "centre" ourselves again. We reknit human relationships, rekindle life. If "God" is love, joy and peace, our blighted world could do with that! The Christians, wanting to reverse a paganism in which the oak symbolised winter, the holly summer, crowned the holly. We should not desire to go back behind Christianity, nor can we. Nevertheless with Christian symbolism Western culture has been skewed. There is much to unravel.

Holly trees - I learn at that party - come male and female: to be fruitful they need one another. Could it be that women long for men to leave their myth behind in a new and equal future?

After Christianity is published by SCM Press, pounds 10.95

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future