Last weekend, two Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on my door and asked me if I understood the true meaning of Christmas. I was surprised by the question not because it is an unusual thing to be asked in late December by people whose job is marketing God, but because it's not how they tend to operate round my way.
I seem to live in a godly training area, because along my street are usually a brace of smartly dressed young women knocking on doors and tactically refusing to get to the point. It must work to prolong the conversation somehow, but the cynical south Londoners wonder whether the ladies are really trying to make us consider the existence of an omniscient creator or casing the joint. I know what the true meaning of Christmas is not, and that's hammering on the doors of innocent householders and scaring the bejesus out of them.
As it happened I was just about to go out, and they gave up unusually easily, taking in my soon-to-be inebriated state and seeing that I was already too far gone to save. But what would I have told them? That the meaning of Christmas for me is about spending time with friends? That it's the one time of year when most people I know can stop work, chill out and share a bottle of bubbly without being obliged to feel "guilty" about it, thanks? Perhaps I should have asked them what they understood to be the true meaning of the Winter Solstice, and buttonholed them for hours about the importance of eating, drinking and being merry to the weary human soul.
There's a lot of it about this year, this naughty spoiling the true meaning of Christmas. This week, a nice lady on the Today programme complained about people being squiffy at carol services. (Is there any other way to be at carol services?) The entire population of Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells has written to the freesheets in an uproar about the concept of the faith-free seasonal school play. The psychologist Oliver James has a book out soon called The Selfish Capitalist, which explains how consumerism causes depression. He has a point, but it does mean that he is very much of the Bah Humbug school of Christmas shopping.
Lots of people are unhappy about "taking the Christ out of Christmas". But I'd go one further and take the Mas out of it, too. We shouldn't need the little baby Jesus to get us a couple of days out of the office so we can spend time with the people we love. They didn't need a reason in 001BC, and not much of importance has really changed.
Whatever our faith or lack of it there is an atavistic human urge to treat ourselves during the dark, dog days of winter. Sure, we may be beyond believing that the days may just get darker and darker until the sun never comes out again, but on Monday mornings it's easy to understand why the pagans worried about it. Now, we call it SAD and sacrifice turkeys to it rather than goats; now, the harvest is available all year round from Sainsbury's and we don't have to wait a couple of months for the beer to brew so we can have a party; now, we show our gratitude to the people who've got us through the hard times with two-for-one gifts instead of hand-knitted wreaths of corn. But the instincts and the party are the same
Early Christians didn't choose the end of December to celebrate the birth of Jesus for nothing. And I bet when they did come along, crashing the party and misappropriating the Yule logs for their funny foreign religion, readers of the Londinium Lite were incensed about them spoiling the true meaning of the Solstice.
Even from a Christian point of view, is there anything really so wrong with the way we celebrate in December? Is it selfish to pound the streets in search of a gift to make someone you love smile? Is it crazy to stretch the credit, sacrifice a few luxuries or travel for miles to show someone how much they mean to you? Wouldn't Jesus be sharpening his elbows in the queue for the last Nintendo Wii if Joseph really wanted one? Yes it's stressful, but that's Christmas, and we wouldn't do it if we didn't care. Perhaps Mary didn't scream and swear and phone her parents in tears when the goose she had ordered didn't get delivered. But I bet she stamped her holy foot about that effing inn.
It doesn't matter what we call it; at this time of year we need to give ourselves a break and lavish food and attention on the people we love. It doesn't spoil the meaning of anything. All of which I could have said to the nice ladies who knocked on my door last week. But instead of course I told them I had a pan on and couldn't stop to chat.