So pity the high-minded atheist (or particularly scrupulous agnostic) parent at this time, who frets about the question of whether his child may be allowed to take part in the school Nativity play, on the Gradgrind grounds, that this is a purely fanciful view of the universe, and it is absurd to let children get themselves up as angels.
How long does the shade of Edmund Gosse linger, who being from a fundamentalist Protestant sect was not permitted to celebrate Christmas, and was made to confess when he tasted mince-pies that he had partaken of the food of idolaters. Actually, I know some very nice fundamentalist Protestants, but I am not taking any nonsense about not celebrating Christmas because it has been turned into a pagan fertility rite, any more than I am taking the Politically Correct line that it is not sufficiently "multi-cultural". Christmas is supposed to be eclectic, to embrace what was in the pagan, too, just as Christianity has embraced what was in our Greek, Roman and Jewish heritage.
Anyway, anyone who has ever had a little blub at a children's Nativity play knows that the Nativity story is the most superbly multi-cultural event you could devise: the Three Kings are traditionally represented as being from different races, the angels look perfect if exquisite little Japanese children, and Jesus, Joseph and Mary are a Semitic family - Joseph can be played as an Arafat lookalike, and Mary must be the Jewish mother of all Jewish mothers. It can thus be a Middle East peace parable.
The Nativity story also works very well as a sort of left-wing, or anti- capitalist, parable (for bleak atheists looking for an excuse to enjoy it). In fact, as a counterpoint to greed and the excesses of materialism, I think this aspect is important. "I went to Harrods the other day," a colleague told me, "and it was fabulous. It was everything that Christmas is about, money, money, money." It is precisely at this point that one needs a Nativity story to transmit to children the idea that flashy toys and monied presents aren't everything: that Jesus was born poor and homeless and that Mary was to all intents and purposes an unmarried mother, and that life works sometimes by paradox.
The carols get over this point very well, and hearing a five-year-old lisp "Away in a Manger" anyhow knocks Traviata expiring at Covent Garden into a cocked hat. "Once in Royal David's City" is a humdinger of a carol for illustrating this miraculous counterpoint between the haves and have- nots. "He came down on earth from heaven, / Who is God and Lord of All. / And his shelter was a stable / And his cradle was a stall; / With the poor, and mean, and lowly, / Lived on earth our Saviour holy."
You don't have to be a Christian, or even a believer, to see that the Nativity story is something wonderful which celebrates life, and helps us share and experience a great story which can be taken at many different levels. The babe in a manger is linked with Original Sin, that useful, pre-Rousseauesque doctrine which reminds us of the flawed nature that is ours. But there is also a feminist interpretation of the way that it "empowers" the unique creative gifts of woman as mother, and puts her at the centre of the narrative.
For those of us who are believers, it is simply a great truth, but it can be extended to unbelievers as a great metaphor, a great symbolic idea and a great story. Literal-minded atheists or scrupulous agnostics should not deprive themselves of pleasure and emotional intensity by not subscribing to its beauty: but if they do not share in it, we can honestly say it is their loss. To experience Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, in celebration of the Nativity of Christ, is to know joy.Reuse content