There is absolutely no justification for the Christian Church to claim that they have a monopoly on the nativity story. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the infant Horus, and Isis his virgin mother; the Jews celebrated Chanukah on the 25th of their month of Chasleu; the Persians worshipped the god Mithra whom they believed to have been born of a virgin mother on 25 December to redeem mankind from sin; and Mithra had a strong following in ancient Rome, too, where the great feast of Saturnalia provided revelry for people of all beliefs. In the northern countries of Europe the yule, or wheel, which marked the midwinter solstice symbolised the turn of the year.
Exactly how it came about that a common thread runs through cultures so far apart in time and place has caused much speculation. Many scholars now think that astronomy holds the answer to the puzzle. The three bright stars in Orion's belt, which appear in midwinter facing the East, seem to point to that part of the sky where Sirius, the Dog Star, rises in the East. These three stars of Orion's belt are still known as 'The Three Kings' in parts of Europe.
So we are part of a tradition stretching back thousands of years and, with variations, the Christmas customs practised today share a common symbolism and theme. The Christmas tree with its candles and the yule log were integral parts of pagan festivals in Egypt, Babylon and Rome, symbolising the rebirth of the sun; mistletoe was the symbol of peace, holly of immortality. And the round, blazing plum pudding? What else but the sun itself.
How do Humanists react to all this? We have no party line; our attitudes to Christmas vary. But I think we all find the Church's hijacking of the festival hard to bear. We resent the comments of people who think it hypocritical for us to have any part in a festival which they - wrongly - consider to be exclusively religious. Some Humanists make a point of calling the festival 'yule-tide' or 'The Winter Solstice', which seems hardly necessary when even the word 'Christ' can be traced to the Chaldean name for the sun.
Most of us take the nativity story in the same way as we do the myth of Father Christmas - as part of the fun - and are even happy to sing the familiar carols. Humanist families will celebrate Christmas in their own way and develop their own rituals. In our family, we make the exchanging of presents a shared event: the children bring their stockings into their parental bedroom to open on Christmas morning; later in the day, presents are assembled under a rug on the floor and are picked out by one person at a time, starting with the youngest.
There are aspects of our modern Christmas that I personally dislike: the pressure through advertising for parents to buy ludicrously expensive toys that they can ill afford; the piped carols in shops; the over-indulgence; the exhausted nurses in hospitals wearing themselves out to decorate wards where sick adult patients might benefit more from a few kind words and some friendly attention.
But I think that Christmas serves a useful function by highlighting the appalling inequalities in our world. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a family and friends are conscious of the many people who have no one to be with. Those of us who have more than plenty to eat know that buying charity Christmas cards does virtually nothing for those who are starving; those of us with roofs over our heads cannot begin to imagine what homelessness means.
But, in spite of all this, Humanists can still join with others to celebrate the rebirth of the sun and the wonders of the natural cycle. We can look forward to the coming of spring and celebrate the warmth of human friendship and love, kindness and generosity. And we can hope for peace in the world.
Jane Wynne Wilson
Jane Wynne Wilson is the author of booklets for the British Humanist Association on non-religious naming, wedding and funeral ceremonies: New Arrivals, To Love and to Cherish and Funerals Without God.
LAST WEEK I watched the pupils in one of our schools acting out a Christmas play. It was a courtroom scene where the charge was that Christmas had lost its meaning for people and should be abolished. The X in Xmas no longer stands for the Greek symbol for the Christ- child, the Son of God bringing his message of Good News for the poor and peace for men and women of good will. X simply marks the spot for a round of wearying parties or a skiing holiday in the Austrian alps.
One of the most telling pieces of evidence offered by the counsel for the prosecution was from a witness who said 'We send cards to our friends but never to our enemies. I have an uncle who never gets a card because of a row 10 years ago. The door is more firmly shut at Christmas against the unwanted than at any other time of the year.'
A good reply by the defence could have been taken from last year's Christmas episode of the television series The Darling Buds of May. The scene was the end of Christmas dinner. The meal had to be held in the farm stable because the dining-room was too small for the extra guests - among them the mother and two children (the family of a man in prison) who had been brought in out of the cold.
With his party hat on and gazing fondly at Ma at the other end of the table, Pop Larkin made a short speech. 'You know I'm not much of a one for religion,' he said, 'but I want to say this. I want to thank Him up there for sending His little boy down to us.' He looked round at the happy group, and with a seraphic smile of deep satisfaction made his comment. 'Perfick,' he said, 'just perfick.'
Fortunately it is not only in fiction that we find evidence of such seasonal love and care. 'Crisis at Christmas' is perhaps the best known of the initiatives taken by individuals and groups on behalf of the rest of us - the deep generosity of the few stirring the sluggish consciences of the many to help those in need in our damaged society.
Let me give one example of a London parish that takes the message of Christmas seriously. Priests and people have for years declared the parish hall 'Open House' for Christmas dinner. For weeks lists are pinned up in the church porch inviting parishioners to provide the turkeys, or hams, or wines, or Christmas crackers or other fare that will be needed. On the day, the parishioners prepare the food, and deliver and serve it. Some 40 meals are taken to the housebound. Those normally housebound who can be moved are ferried to and from their homes and are joined in the hall by anyone who is alone on Christmas Day. One hundred and forty guests are expected to dinner.
A special sensitivity is shown for the homeless and less fortunate who, for one reason or another, might find such company embarrassing. At their wish, they have their meal in a side room, with the parish priest (who knows them all by their Christian names) as their guest. Is this just an example of Christian conscience trying to save its self-respect by the solitary yule- tide gesture? Not at all. The down-and-out guests are regular daily visitors at the door of the Priests House and some 25 of them come regularly to the parish hall on Sunday afternoons, where showers have been built to meet their needs, and where they are offered a change of clothes and a place of rest.
Very few parishes have the opportunities of space that this parish enjoys, but the love and generosity displayed by its parishioners are to be found in varying degrees in every Christian community - and sometimes in the least likely places. Within the shadow of Canary Wharf you will find one of the best examples of ecumenical Christian activity of this kind.
Is Christmas a failure? The lesson we learn from the nativity scenes on our cards and sing about in our carols is simple. God so loved us that He sent His Son to become one of us, not just to show us how to live, but to give us new life and the courage to live it. As a second-century saint put it: 'He became Son of Man in order to accustom man to receive God, and to accustom God to dwell in Man.' That is the dignity of a Christian - to have the vision, and the purpose, of God Himself.
It is always good to take a lesson to heart and put it into practice. Why not try it for yourself this Christmas? Get the family to open the door to the lonely ones: it might be the way to get Christ back into your Christmas.
The Right Rev Victor Guazzelli is Roman Catholic Bishop in East London.Reuse content