Meanings of Christmas: A Christian country that defers to minority religions

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As a practising Jew, my feelings about Christmas differ from those of a practising Christian, although I suspect that we will be at one in regretting the festival's transformation from a religious celebration into a commercial bacchanal.

Growing up in Manchester more than half a century ago, I remember that my mother, the child of Orthodox Polish immigrants, could only come to terms with Christmas dinner by preceding our turkey with chopped liver and chicken soup, as a defiant affirmation of her origins. Likewise, she never hung out her washing on a Sunday, out of respect for our church-going neighbours. Nowadays, she wouldn't have to bother because, according to a recent survey, Manchester's churches were the emptiest in the country this Christmas, with 98 per cent of the population preferring to go shopping and partying rather than celebrate the birth of Jesus.

A far cry from my childhood in a religiously mixed junior school, where the gym master would simplify picking football teams by dividing us up into Jews versus Christians, and when it came to Scripture, as it was called in those days, the Jewish children would be sent to get on with other work at the back of the class. While pretending to concentrate ferociously on sums or whatever, my ears would burn as I heard how the wicked Jews, incited by the High Priest, rejected Jesus for Barabbas (a name which, as a sign of the times, the spell-check on my computer does not recognise). On the other hand, I do recall my dressing-gown and tea-towel costume as one of the three kings in the school nativity play. Although critics might think otherwise, I am not aware that these contradictory childhood experiences marred my psyche for life or irredeemably screwed up my religious identity.

Thirty-five years later, and as an ordained rabbi with family, a pleasant annual event would be Christmas dinner with two rabbinical colleagues and their families, when a jolly, guilt-free time was had by all of us, because by now the day bore no more resemblance to a Christian festival than does Thanksgiving in America. We felt particularly deserving of our turkey and Christmas pudding if, as this year, 25 December fell on a Saturday, and we had spent the morning preaching to a sparse Sabbath congregation that clearly wished to be elsewhere. We would pause in our overindulgence to watch the Queen's Speech. Nowadays, to judge by declining viewing figures, even that cosy tradition is being discarded.

Today, in a multicultural society that is resolute but ludicrously confused about political correctness, nativity plays and carol services are cancelled, for fear of jarring the sensitivities of other religions, and the cards we receive carefully wish us "Season's Greetings". I suppose I should be grateful, as a member of a minority, that, among the Government's raft of measures designed further to curtail our civil liberties in the name of an amorphous War Against Terror, there is also a proposed Bill to criminalise religious hatred. But I am not.

Such a law would be impossibly difficult to implement. There is a fine but crucial distinction, first proposed by John Stuart Mill, I think, between giving offence and incitement to hatred. To show David Beckham as Jesus and Posh as the Virgin Mary at Madame Tussauds may well have given offence to some Christians, but was not an incitement to hatred. The virulence with which certain well-known atheists attack Christian belief is far more provocative. Similarly, I am fairly sure, as one of the few people to have ploughed through Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in its entirety, that the fatwa was imposed on him less for alleged blasphemies about the Prophet Mohamed (most readers did not get that far), but because the character of the exiled cleric plotting in Paris about turning his homeland into a theocracy displayed more than a passing resemblance to Ayatollah Khomeini. Rushdie certainly gave offence, but the animadversions of Michel Houellebecq about Islam strike me as more dangerously inflammatory. John Stuart Mill would have prosecuted neither.

But how strange, in our nominally Christian country, that more deference should be paid to the beliefs of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others than is accorded to Christianity. By an empirical definition, I don't imagine that myths about the miraculous birth of Jesus are any more credible than legends about the Exodus from Egypt, but both have been inspiring and didactic narratives for the followers of the two faiths. It was Alan Bennett who wittily remarked that the Church of England is so constituted that its members can really believe anything, but of course almost none of them do. At this time of the year I do wish that they believed a little more.

David J. Goldberg is Rabbi Emeritus of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London

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