I cannot lie: the giant felt reindeer head has been hanging on the kitchen door for a week and the rest of the Christmas decorations have just gone up. This may seem surprising on two counts.
The first is that we don’t have children, so that reindeer is just there to entertain us and anyone who visits over the next couple of weeks. The second is that we’re a Christmas-loving, godless household, which for many people is a contradiction in terms. My partner is a committed atheist. If asked for my beliefs, I say I am a Protagorean agnostic, after the sentence which opened one of Protagoras’s books: “On the subject of the gods, I am unable to say whether they exist or not. There are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.”
I’ve never found a better description of how I feel. I like gods, I like myth, I like epic stories of creation, but I don’t believe in them.
Yet we love Christmas. Most atheists and humanists do, in my experience. Robin Ince, the stand-up comedian and science-fan who presents the Radio 4 Infinite Monkey Cage series with Brian Cox, once found himself embroiled in a televised battle with Stephen Green, of the Christian Voice organisation. When Green accused Ince of wanting to ban Christmas, Ince responded as anyone who knows him would have guessed he would. He became furious, and set up Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, described as a rationalist Christmas jamboree. These shows have run every December for six years and feature a huge array of comedians, scientists and musicians, performing their equivalent of a Christmas carol or lesson. This will be their final year – the shows are being killed off, or at least “cryogenically frozen”, according to their creator.
I should confess my bias: I have been one of the Nine Lessons comedians many times and have always loved doing Ince’s shows, which run for hours, with at least 25 acts on the bill. They began at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and have ended up including dates at the Hammersmith Apollo. Every year they sell out, because Ince found a gap in the market: people who want to feel close to their fellow man at Christmas, but not in church. Other atheists, just like him, wanted to celebrate their own version of Christmas with like-minded souls. You don’t have to be religious to want to feel a sense of community in the darkest month of the year.
The idea that most atheists resent Christmas is simply nonsense. Even Richard Dawkins once admitted that he launches into the occasional Christmas carol. Andrew Copson, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, cheerily points out that he no more objects “to the Christ in Christmas than I do to the Thor in Thursday. Christmas is just the name given to the midwinter festival by our recent cultural past. What is timeless is what we actually do at it – gather together with friends and family, eating good food in good company, giving gifts: setting human warmth against the outside cold.”
The BHA’s Christmas cards this year play on the ambiguity of Christmas as both a religious and cultural event: they are ambigrams. Read one way up, they read “Christmas” in a stylised gothic font. Turned the other way, the same word reconfigures to read “Saturnalia”, which seems pretty reasonable given how many of our Christmas traditions were pinched from the Romans. Christmas might be the festival of giving, but it’s taken a lot from other midwinter festivals along the way. As Martin Rowson, the cartoonist and long-time cover artist for the New Humanist magazine explains, “I’ve always worked on the basis that Christianity merely expropriated pre-existing mid-winter religious festivals, which had been expropriated from earlier festivals in their turn. As it’s a universal human trait to banish the gloom of deep winter with a festival of light, I don’t really see what it’s got to do with any specific organised religion, so as an atheist I’ve expropriated it, too.”
Saturnalia was an exuberant festival, a time of inverting the natural order of things. Slaves changed places with masters and spent the day sitting around being served treats. Presents were exchanged and a party atmosphere prevailed: drinking, gambling and revelling were all crucial to its success. Pantomime owes something to the Saturnalian tradition, I think, with all the cross-dressing and role reversal. The dame, the ugly sisters, the principal boy are all reversing traditional gender roles for the show. And gift-giving seems to have been the main function of Christmas for as long as I have been alive. So unbelievers were keen gift-givers at this time of year long before Christianity came on the scene. (I am not just saying that because I can’t currently open the washing-machine, having had to stash the presents I’ve bought in front of it.) Rowson and his family have Christmas stockings: “That’s me, my wife and our children in their 20s – still all get stockings.” The rest of his Christmas Day is pretty traditional, too: “We chuck the turkey in the oven, open our presents, welcome the rest of the family, start drinking and eating, watch Doctor Who, fall asleep. We believe in tradition round these parts.”
For me, that’s the single most important factor for most people’s idea of a good Christmas. Do the same things you did last year and the year before that, and the year before that. Obviously, for those people who are religious, that includes going to church. But ritual and tradition aren’t the preserve of the god-fearing. Ince sees 25 December as “a wonderful time to take a break, to gather with your family, to take winter walks and avoid the general pressures of existence. So we have a tree, my son does his nativity play at the state school he’s at. He might ask me about Jesus and I say, like Socrates, he was a human with some good ideas”.
Andrew Copson agrees: “Most people in the UK do these things. It’s not in the name of God but for the pleasure of the occasion or the comfort in annual repetition that allows us to look backwards and forwards in our lives at the turning of the year and give them a sense of structure.” Is that why he celebrates Christmas? “I mainly do it for the cakes,” he answers.
In my home, the traditions are pretty specific. Some I’ve had since childhood and some we’ve built together. I’ve been vegetarian for decades, so Christmas dinner isn’t the same every year, though it usually has chestnuts and parsnips and cranberries in it somewhere. I consider the roast potato to be the king of all Christmas food, so really I’m just looking for something that accompanies those because I have gradually come to accept that other people don’t view a mountain of roast potatoes as a balanced meal. As my partner and I are both film nerds, advent is a time for watching Christmas movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, The Bishop’s Wife. Each of these films has a moral which applies just as much to the irreligious as it does to the church-going. It’s A Wonderful Life is about valuing love and family over money and success; The Muppets’ Christmas Carol preaches kindness and generosity, particularly to those less fortunate than ourselves. Even something as profoundly Christian as The Bishop’s Wife (for those who haven’t seen it, it stars Cary Grant as a meddling angel and David Niven as the bishop he’s sent to help) is about remembering that love and happiness are things which go alongside humility, not grandstanding. I know some humanists prefer an alternative ceremony: presumably, that’s where Humanlight comes in. Humanlight is a humanist festival which takes place on 23 December, and while I’m happy to am happy to live without it (even though a quick peek at the event’s official website shows that other humanists share my taste in tinsel and balloons), it obviously appeals to some. First held in 2001, it’s the brainchild of New Jersey Humanist Network. Its creators conceived it as a chance to celebrate the Humanist values of reason, compassion, hope and humanity. Although most of this year’s celebrations will be taking place in the movement’s country of origin, the Chester Humanists will be celebrating Humanlight tomorrow night at Custom House Inn in the city centre with a night of poems, readings, games and conversation. Still, I shan’t be joining them. I don’t want to avoid Christmas, or participate in a rival to it. I just want to enjoy a day or two with my loved ones, feeding them and not working. If I could change one thing about the way Christmas works in this country, I would make it last a little bit longer. I’d like to reinstate Boxing Day as the true Bank Holiday it was until, I think, about 10 years ago. We used to have two whole days of sitting around watching telly and incompetently playing board games. Now, on 26 December, most people seem to be fighting their way in to the sales instead, even though the damn shops have only been closed for 20 minutes. Robin Ince is with me on this: “The one thing I would ban is shops and sales on Boxing Day. I think a time for calm is required and shop workers having to get up at 3am on Boxing Day so people can rip dresses and drop tellies that are reduced in price by 12p makes me sick.” After meeting a shop assistant a few years ago who’d seen someone stabbed with an (as yet) unpurchased stiletto heel on Boxing Day, I can’t disagree.
So my godless theme for Christmas this year, as every year, comes from Dickens rather than the Bible, but is no less seasonal for it.
“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
Tickets to Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, 15-22 December, 7.30pm, are £25 (£15 concessions). Visit bloomsbury.com