Do we do Christmas right?

Whether you're an atheist or an adiaphorist, an agnostic or an apathetic Christian, Sara Maitland wishes you a guilt-free holiday feast
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The Independent Online
Last week someone showed me a Christmas card - it had been designed in the Far East but is for sale here. It depicts a traditional nativity scene in the foreground: shepherds, kings, lovely maiden and neo-natal child. In the background, high on a snow covered hillside, was Father Christmas, white beard, red coat and all, hanging on a crucifix. It was quite pretty, very Christmassy. I bet it sold well too.

Ho, ho, ho. Or something like that.

It seemed somehow an icon of our time. Christmas has, over the last century or two, become the major folk festival of Europe. Even Scotland, which for a long time hung onto Hogmanay as its mid-winter celebration - oddly enough as a form of Christian (Presbyterian) resistance to Christian (Roman Catholics) ritualism - has given in. Boxing Day may still not be a Bank holiday in Scotland but public Christmas trees, shopping centre Santas and carol services have all crept into common culture.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that like other older folk customs, Christmas is absorbing and integrating diverse elements and processing them quite quickly into the "tradition". Turkeys, Father Christmas and robins, for example, have absolutely nothing to do with first century Bethlehem.

Like any other well-established living myth, it is extremely difficult to decode Christmas honestly - no one really wants myths that they are living by explained away. In a deafening chorus of angels and cash tills, one might not notice that there are at least five very different groups (all of which cut across other boundaries such as class or ethnicity) celebrating or enduring Christmas this week. The Holy or Unholy Five are: (1) the believing Christians; (2) the "lapsed", or cultural, Christians; (3) the uninterested, called Adiaphorists; (4) the rigorous atheists; and (5) the members of other religions. It is not easy for any of us.

Perhaps it is easy for the rigorous atheist, or at least for those of them with enough money to leave a cold Britain for the beaches of warmer, non-European, non-Christian countries. Though even then they may have to be careful or they might find their hotel dinner festooned with a kindly meant tinsel strip. If they aren't rich enough to get away, their only hope is to buy in an enormous quantity of food sometime in mid-October (the last chance to escape canned carol music, special Xmas offers and plastic bags printed with seasonal greetings.) With a bit of luck and careful planning they may be able to watch a number of TV movies which, despite their ambience of sentimental nostalgia, do not actually mention Christmas.

They will, however, have to lock themselves in their houses for several days or face the irritating good cheer of their neighbours. And even this will only work if they do not have any children; children can be trained in parental firmness, but this tends to break down both under peer group pressure and within a quarter-mile radius of any sweet or toy shop.

So, unless you are rich and childfree, it is probably best to be a well intentioned Adiaphorist. An Adiaphorist is one who is indifferent on all matters of religion. While theists and deists believe in God, and atheists believe in not-God, and agnostics cannot decide which they believe in, Adiaphorists simply do not care. This useful word deserves to be better known; lots and lots of people are Adiaphorists nowadays. Adiaphorism is probably the fastest growing theological position in the country. A cheerful Adiaphorist can take whatever pleases them from the collection of customs and rituals of Christmas without a moments' worry. They can enjoy Renaissance Madonnas and the sweetness of treble voiced choirs as pure art. Or they can get indecently drunk, wear a silly paper hat, make sexual advances to unsuitable colleagues at the office party and wake up with a blinding headache - and all this, quite free from any obligation to wonder whether they have somehow missed the true spirit of Christmas.

They will pay a small price for this freedom in the disapproval of a few of their neighbours, and of the tabloid papers who shift at this time of year to a highly moralistic criticism of such people who are "spoiling" Christmas for the rest of us. They may pay a higher price in terms of a sort of loss; of magical joy or self-righteousness; but of course they do not really care about that.

Meanwhile the cultural or lapsed Christians - many of whom are actually Adiaphorists, but who are too sentimental to have noticed - really love Christmas. They get an aesthetic and emotional buzz off it. They even go to Midnight Mass and shed a tear during the second verse of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem. It gives them a fabulous nostalgia for their own childhood and they honestly believe they are doing it all for the children. They feel happy and smug. The only price they have to pay is a tiny niggling guilt about feeling quite so good from something that they totally ignore for the other 51 weeks of the year. If they have a happy time this week, then next week they may well be making New Year resolutions about going to church more often, giving more to charity or having their horrendous mother-in-laws for Christmas next year. Luckily, by mid-January they will have recalled that the Salvation Army uses its Christmas collection to maintain its own brass bands, or that the local bishop has a mistress, or that Mother Theresa isn't quite all she's cracked up to be. In fact, it is the hypocrisy of the churches that is keeping them from their darling baby Jesus. By Good Friday they will certainly have recovered.

It must genuinely be very difficult for committed members of other religions, particularly those who may not or cannot believe in the liberal notion that God is just God by various other names (those members of religions that are in this respect at least like Christianity), to find an attitude to Christmas that is both charitable and honourable. There is no doubt a wide range of solutions, depending on the size and accessibility of their own religious communities, their relations with their neighbours, and the rigour of their discipline. But, without question, serious members of other faiths (and here I would include humanists, Marxist-materialists, and eco-spiritualists, among other secular disciplines) have the most theologically challenging Christmas. On the whole most manage a public face of benign indifference, or an amused tolerance that should be a lesson to us all.

What is sad is that if we lived in a genuinely, culturally open society this burden would be lifted from them. At least the Adiaphorists and many of the cultural Christians, promoters or both hedonism and spiritual uplift, could share many aspects of their religious celebrations. But while one minority religion dominates the cultural high ground is not likely to happen.

The real fly in this sweet ointment, sadly enough, is we believing Christians. Despite the fact that we actually stole Christmas from the pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations of northern Europe, and co-opted it to our own ends, we now act as though we owned it. We show every intention of hanging on to it too, by almost any means we can think of. And we do not seem to want anyone else to enjoy it. Only Christians, we appear to say, can dictate the "true meaning" of Christmas - and our Christmas means too often that you cannot do what you want.

As a Christian, I believe that a unique and significant event occurred which, for complex and social but totally unhistoricial reasons, we especially celebrate in late December. This belief certainly lays obligations on me: obligations mainly of praise and thanksgiving. How these obligations can possibly be undermined by people having a good time in their own way is most mysterious. But most of the pews and pulpits and a preposterous amount of the media at this time of year, are dedicated to the peculiar notion that it is somehow good for people to act as though they believe something that they don't believe. Before they have earned the right to pull a single cracker, let alone consume an alcoholic drink, they must pass a spirituality test that will certainly include repentance for any material pleasure they are hoping to enjoy.

What is odd about this attitude is that it is not Christian. Christians believe that what happened at Christmas was profoundly materialistic: God loved the world so much that the barrier between matter and spirit was broken by God becoming matter, not by us becoming spirit. And further more this did not happen just to a group of well-trained, biblically-sound Christians but to and for everyone.

The materialistic delight of non-believers, the sentimental aesthetics of half-believers, even the withdrawal of non-Christians are all perfectly appropriate responses - and often much more fun. But we Christians just feel hurt when people can't see it the way we do. Still, hurt feelings do not justify our insistence on flexing our cultural muscle.

There is a way out of this confusion. Perhaps all of Britain, should take a leaf from Scottish history and hold out for Hogmanay: a genuinely inclusive feast of hope at the turning of a new year. Nothing in this would stop Christians, a week earlier, having the most rigorously pious religious celebrations, which would inconvenience no one else and please at least some of us. It would be a massive step towards real tolerance and a multi-faith society, and it would even be more Christian.